In the last few weeks there has been great excitement in Africa and other parts of the world about Southern Sudan’s possible secession from Sudan and the creation of a new state on the African continent. The theory goes that because the Southern Sudanese have been so marginalised by their northern counterparts, it would be in the best interests of both parties for the South to secede and for a new country to be birthed that will guarantee better prospects for southerners. Amidst all the excitement and elation for a continent that is desperate for any kind of good news in order to counter the negativity that often pervades it, it would appear that the question of the economic viability of a South Sudanese state has been ignored or at best completely overlooked.
Here are some facts that should cause us to be a bit more cautious before we celebrate the probable birthing of a new African nation-state, South Sudan: according to an Oxfam report, the south only has a hundred certified midwives serving a population of roughly 8.2 million. Just one in ten deliveries in the south is attended by a skilled birth attendant, 80% of adults in the south (92% of women) cannot read or write, less than 2% of the children complete their primary education and over half the population do not have access to healthy drinking water.
The south has only 50km of paved roads and more than 90% of its population live on less than $1 a day, with almost half the population living off aid. It is also completely land-locked and even though most if not all of the oil in Sudan can be found in the south, the pipes needed to transport the oil run through the north. So we see here that we are faced with the prospect of the birthing of a nation-state which may not be economically viable and which would require lots of aid and assistance in order to avoid becoming yet another of many failed states on the continent.
A friend recently accused me of being an Afro-pessimist when I dared to suggest that we can’t celebrate the probable birthing of a new nation-state when it is not exactly clear how this would directly affect the ordinary South Sudanese in a positive manner. Of course, because of the perceived injustices perpetuated by the north over many years and the marginalisation of the Christian South by the Muslim North, there will be a populist push towards independence which will be highly supported by the populace but does secession benefit ordinary people in both the north and the south? Are we not better off finding ways to make a united Sudan work together for the greater benefit of its populace? Is self-determination more important than economic freedom and development?
These are just some of the questions that I have been asking myself amid all the euphoria about the possible independence of South Sudan as I have considered some of the great socio-economic challenges it will have to face on its own once independence has been attained. Post-colonial African history has taught us a very important lesson about the folly of celebrating independence whilst the issue of economic viability and sustainability has not been sufficiently addressed. I hope we are not failing the people of north and south Sudan by celebrating possible independence at the expense of future economic prospects and potential. It is important that we remember the words of the Argentine poet Ricardo Guttierez, “do not sing victory hymns on the sunless day of the battle.” Whilst the rest of the continent and the world celebrates the birthing of a new state, the naked reality will be that the new South Sudanese state will be entering into a battle for its very survival as a state, owing to the socio-economic challenges that it will be faced with which may be better tackled under the banner of one united Sudan. It also seems odd to me that whilst the general push around the world is for unity, greater co-operation and co-dependence, we Africans are busy celebrating the probable splitting up of one of our key states. For the sake of the ordinary Sudanese I hope that history proves me wrong and both Sudans find a way to be economically viable and sustainable.