Southern Sudan: A new strategic ally?
On July 9, 2011 the world’s newest state was born—the Republic of South Sudan—when it formally seceded from the Sudan at a ceremony attended by 30 heads of state. What happens to the fledgling Republic matters to the region and to the United States and Europe--not as a humanitarian victim but as a potential strategic ally.
I served as the U.S. Envoy to Sudan under President Bush and attended the independence celebration in Juba as a guest of the Southern government. I was joined by many other westerners who had worked with the South over more than two decades to publicize the atrocities taking place, to mobilize humanitarian and development resources, and to work on the political and diplomatic issues. When I took my first trip to Sudan in 1989 during a terrible famine in the South which claimed 250,000 lives I never thought this day would come. But it has. The new Republic will determine the stability of the nine countries bordering Sudan which have been destabilized by the chaos of the two civil wars and the weakness and dysfunctions of the Sudanese state. The Bashir Islamist government, which took power in a 1989 coup, planned to use South Sudan as a base to spread its ideology across Africa—a threat not lost on African countries with large Muslim populations which have had historically good relations with their Christian neighbors. The Bashir regime’s ultimate ambitions have not changed; it is the internal weaknesses of the Sudanese state that have constrained their adventurism. In the 1990’s Sudan supported and was headquarters to nearly all of the world’s most violent Islamist groups, including Al Queda. Osama bin Laden lived there for five years as an honored guest of the Sudanese government.
Egypt’s survival depends on the Nile River, whose waters flow through South Sudan. International companies are now rushing to develop the vast resources of the South: luxuriant soils; plentiful water for irrigation; vast areas of open land which are ideal for large-scale farming; and enormous and untapped mineral resources including rare earth metals, gold, copper, diamonds, and coltan. Seventy-five percent of Sudan’s oil reserves lie in South Sudan. July 9 marked the end of an interim period begun in January 2005 to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which western governments, particularly the United States, UK, and Norway, played a central role in negotiating. It ended a 22-year civil war in which 2.5 million Southerners died. The North agreed to allow the South at the end of the six-year period to vote in a referendum on whether to secede and form a new country. That vote took place January 9, 2011; the South chose independence by a 98.8 percent margin. The nearly unanimous vote speaks more than anything else to the bitterness and hostility the South—African and predominately Christian—feels towards the Muslim North, dominated by Arab tribes of the Northern Nile River valley. July 9 may also mark the informal end of the heavy dominance over western Sudan/Darfur policy by U.S. and European advocacy, NGO, and religious groups because the South will now become an independent state, with a seat at the UN, embassies around the world, a large standing army (150,000 troops strong), an annual budget of $3-4 billion—and its own foreign policy, which advocacy groups may not necessarily understand or support. For much of the 20th century, South Sudan was viewed by its western partners almost exclusively as a helpless victim that needed international protection (which it did) from the predatory and aggressive behavior of successive Khartoum governments, trying since 1956 to forcibly impose Arab and Islamic culture. It was a victim, but won’t be anymore. The new Republic of South Sudan will need more long-term strategic allies with common interests than it will be a victim in need of advocates. The South has development challenges—weak government institutions, corruption, high illiteracy rates, and a largely subsistence agricultural economy. But its potential to be a powerhouse in the expanding east African economy is real. Its economy is now booming, thanks to oil revenues, the return of the Southern diaspora to build homes and start businesses, and international corporations setting up offices to explore its resources. Most Southerners have a deep affection for the United States and Europe, who they believe supported them in their most desperate days and forced the intransigent North to sue for peace. Southerners share with westerners a deep suspicion of radical Islam. Since the peace settlement of 2005, the United States and the British governments have had a modest non-lethal military assistance program in the South—several Southern officers are training at U.S. military schools. All of this suggests America and Europe are in a strategic position to influence the development of the new Republic, but the budget and lending crisis in Washington and Brussels are putting donor support at risk. Just when the reconstruction program and military assistance should be ramped up or at least held steady, they risk cuts. With independence, the U.S. and European governments ought to consider a long-term strategic alliance with the Republic of South Sudan that would not be costly at a time when the federal budget deficit is so large. First, the United States and Europe should consider a free trade agreement with the South, tying its economies to theirs and facilitating western business investment.
Adding the influential American and European business communities to those supporting closer ties with the South would cement this alliance. Second, NATO or the United States and any European countries individually should negotiate a security guarantee agreement with the South: if the North attacks the South it would be considered an attack on the United States or Europe, mimicking the language of the NATO alliance. Such an alliance would be welcomed by the South, and send a clear signal to any future Khartoum government that it would face retaliation from the United States and Europe if it attacked the South, which would act as a deterrent to war. As important as protecting the South, a security guarantee would also constrain militant pressure among younger Southerners who demand the new Republic launch an attack on the North to remove the Khartoum regime. The western governments have a history of snatching defeat out of the hands of victory by walking away from historical moments such as these. This is no time to declare victory. We should not repeat that mistake in South Sudan.
Andrew S. Natsios is a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Mr. Natsios served as Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2001 to January 2006, and served on GMF’s Transatlantic Taskforce on Development in 2008-09.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.