South Sudan: Avoiding State Failure

On July 9, 2011, South Sudanese citizens will celebrate and the community of nations will welcome the birth of a new nation. For the diverse nationality and ethnic groups that make up this new nation, independence will mark the culmination of a long and bloody struggle for autonomy from economic, social and political domination and oppression by Khartoum. The independence of South Sudan is an important milestone of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that, for some time, looked no more than an idealistic dream. Credit for this outcome is and must be widely shared. Most importantly, we must congratulate the leaders and the people of both the North and the South who, against insurmountable odds, have persisted in the implementation of the CPA. But, there are other important players—individuals, as well as regional and international organizations—that have been pivotal to the process. Thus, the independence of South Sudan does indeed reflect evidence of the good that can emerge even in dire situations when humanity works collectively for peace.

But, as we celebrate on this occasion, it is important for the world and especially the people of South Sudan not to be complacent in their nation building efforts. The independence we celebrate could also pave the way for state failure. For, although independence comes with many opportunities for economic and political development of the South, it also brings many challenges. How well the people of South Sudan utilize these opportunities to bring about positive change and deal with the challenges will determine whether South Sudan evolves into a development-enhancing state or a failed one.

Although the new nation will be born with many opportunities, it will also face a myriad of challenges. It is endowed with a significant amount of natural resources, which include large reserves of oil and a significant amount of arable land. Neighbors in the East African community are willing to work and support the new nation and establish strong trade linkages. Predictably, donors will flood the country with offers of support and prospective investors, seeking opportunities to maximize profits, will bring with them badly needed technology, as well as create jobs for the country’s restless youth. Well-managed and coordinated, these opportunities promise to boost economic growth and raise the quality of life in the country. However, these opportunities are dwarfed by the challenges that confront the new state. First, peace with the North is still not a done deal. Second, the new nation is also characterized by very low quality of life—poor health status, extremely high poverty rates, low levels of educational attainment, food insecurity, inadequate or nonexistent infrastructure, just to name a few. Finally, both the North and the South will contend with a huge debt burden—over $38 billion, most of which is in arrears. All these challenges will require careful management and planning if South Sudan is to transform itself into a development-oriented state.

Nevertheless, the most important challenge facing South Sudan is creating a united nation. How South Sudan deals with harmonizing the claims of the various stakeholders and ethnic groups is the single most important determinant of whether it succeeds or fails as a nation. South Sudan will need significant help from the international community in the form of development aid, debt relief, and new flows of foreign direct investment. However, if the new country’s diverse groups do not engage in a participatory and inclusive process of nation building, the inflow of these resources will fail to have any positive impact on national standards of living. As part of the effort to create a united South Sudan, the people must establish institutional arrangements that enhance entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth. It would be instructive for South Sudanese to remind themselves that Sudan deteriorated into a failed state because its leaders, since independence in 1956, have consistently rejected any efforts to build a consensual state.

Avoiding the Original Sin: Failure to Create a Consensual State

The agreement that brought Sudan to independence in 1956 deepened and institutionalized the hegemonic control of the largely Christian South by the Islamic North. In the summer of 1955, as an omen of what was to come, disgruntled southern army units went on a rampage and destroyed various symbols of northern oppression. The government reacted extremely harshly, executing as many as seventy southerners for inciting a rebellion. The brutality of the government’s response to the revolt did not, however, pacify the South. In fact, many soldiers who mutinied in Torit refused to surrender to their northern superiors. Instead, they went into hiding with their weapons and launched what many analysts believe as the beginning of the modern Southern struggle for self-determination.

As Sudan prepared for independence, it was clear that Southerners were completely dissatisfied with what was emerging from the hastened decolonization project—a set of institutional arrangements that were specifically designed to enhance the ability of the North to dominate the South in all domains. For one thing, Southerners favored constitutional federalism, a system of government that they believed would enhance their ability to maximize their values, as well as minimize political and economic domination by a Muslim-controlled government in Khartoum. In addition, Southerners desired a secular government in order to avoid government-supported Arabization and Islamization. Unfortunately for Southerners, the decolonization project was hasty, elite-driven, top-down, non-participatory and controlled entirely by ruling elites in Khartoum and their Egyptian benefactors—southern participation in the process of designing the new country’s institutional arrangements was either nonexistent or totally ineffective. As a consequence, two constitutional issues that were important to Southerners—federalism and the nature of the character of the state—were never resolved. These two issues were to shape and dominate the contours of the conflict between the North and the South in the post-independence period. Shortly after independence, Muslim-controlled northern political parties forced the central government in Khartoum to dissolve the Constituent Assembly so that it would not be able to engage in a robust discussion about the issue of federalism. A unitary government was instituted and the three southern provinces were granted token and totally ineffective representation in the central government.

From 1956 to 2011, the Muslim-dominated northern Sudan controlled the destiny of the peoples of the South, from the cradle to the grave. Although northern exploitation of the South goes as far back as the slave raids of the nineteenth century, the instruments of post-independence oppression were forged during the hasty, opportunistic and top-down decolonization project, which began shortly after World War II. The failure to fully and effectively engage the South in the process of transforming the critical domains allowed the Muslim-dominated North to set up all institutional arrangements for the new country. This allowed them to turn governance structures into instruments of violence against Southerners. The outcome was a southern region whose traditions, customs, cultures, languages, and values were made subordinate to Arabic, Islamic and other northern values and its development potential allowed to wither or exploited only for Northern benefit. Over the years, Southerners came to recognize violent mobilization as the only way to free themselves from northern-induced servitude. But, the same can happen in South Sudan if some groups are excluded from full participation in all aspects of life.

Below we briefly examine some lessons that the new South Sudan must keep in mind as it seeks to create a consensual state, one that can enhance their ability to live together peacefully and create the wealth that they need to meet rising public obligations and improve the quality of life for all citizens.

1. Building a locally-focused, development-oriented constitution

The constitution defines and structures the limits of governmental power. It creates legislative, executive, and judicial powers and places appropriate limits on them. The limitations on the exercise of government power may come in the form of individual or group rights against the government and, depending on the nature of the society in question, or as favored by many developing societies, including those in Africa, the right of each ethnic or nationality group to its economic, social and cultural development. Such a constitution, obviously, did not exist in Sudan as indicated by the fact that a significant amount of the violence directed at groups in the South actually came from the government. To make sure that the constitution is relevant to the people whose lives it is supposed to regulate, it must reflect their values—which can be achieved only if the process of compacting the constitution is participatory, inclusive, bottom-up, and people-driven (i.e., democratic). This is the most important lesson that South Sudan can learn from its years of oppression under the government in Khartoum. By effectively disenfranchising Southerners and preventing them from participating fully and effectively in constitution making, the northerners were able to produce laws and institutions that greatly enhanced their ability to oppress the South. Should the South allow the laws and institutions for the new country to be developed through a similar top-down, elite-driven and non-participatory system, it would end up with institutional arrangements that do not reflect the values of the diverse nationality and ethnic groups that make up the country. The outcome is most likely to be the same type of violent ethnic mobilization that has characterized Sudan since 1956 as groups within the new country, who feel marginalized and deprived resort to violent mobilization in order to either improve their levels of participation and minimize further marginalization or exit and form their own polity. It is only through democratic constitution making that South Sudan can secure institutions that would enhance peaceful coexistence, promote the creation of wealth, but at the same time, adequately constrain the state.

2. Constitutional guarantee of economic freedom

Economic freedom is one of the most important determinants of the quality of a country’s institutions. In a country in which economic freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and protected, citizens have the right to contract and can engage freely in exchange. Economic freedom enhances efficient allocation of resources, maximizes the creation of wealth, and contributes significantly to the alleviation of poverty. The failure to constitutionally guarantee economic freedom has been a very important obstacle to entrepreneurship and wealth creation in the African countries. In fact, at independence, these countries, including Sudan, actually adopted institutional structures that stunted entrepreneurial activities among various groups, significantly reducing the ability of these groups to contribute to national economic growth. The failure of many Southerners to participate fully and effectively in the Sudanese economy constituted part of the conflict that existed between the North and South and provided the impetus for the war of liberation. Through democratic constitution making, the citizens of South Sudan can compact and adopt a development-oriented constitution, which guarantees economic freedom, enhances the ability of all its citizens to engage in wealth-creating activities. This is the most effective way to attack poverty.

3. Ensuring a common South Sudan citizenship

South Sudan must create a concept of citizenship that is in line with the modern state structure—the person and property of the individual must be secure, not only in his or her so-called ancestral home but outside of it. This will minimize the type of discrimination and capricious and arbitrary treatment that Southerners who migrated to the North suffered at the hands of state and non-state actors. Thus, citizenship in the new country, unlike what it was in the Khartoum-dominated Sudan, must be fully portable. Each citizen must be able to migrate internally or exit one political jurisdiction within the country and enter another without the requirement or need to assert citizenship in the new political jurisdiction in order to participate in and benefit from economic and political activities. Thus, regardless of their ethno-regional origins, South Sudanese citizens should be able to establish residency in any of the political sub-divisions that make up the country and suffer no discrimination based simply on the fact that the individual is not an indigene of the political sub-division in question. Citizenship based on consanguinity and geography must be rejected in favor of citizenship based on association. Only when the peoples of South Sudan accept such an holistic approach to citizenship will peaceful coexistence be assured to every citizen so that they can fully and effectively participate in economic development of their new country.

With the birth of their new nation, South Sudanese can escape the burden of living under Khartoum-engineered tyranny. However, in order to ensure peaceful coexistence and sustainable development, they must create a consensual state. This can be accomplished only if all relevant stakeholders are enfranchised and granted the facilities to participate fully and effectively in constitution making. Through democratic constitution making, the peoples of South Sudan can secure for themselves a constitution that adequately constrains the state (i.e., it minimizes the ability of civil servants and politicians to engage in any form of political opportunism, such as rent seeking and corruption), provides market participants with incentives that encourage engagement in productive activities, provides structures for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and generally promotes the peaceful coexistence of all of the nation’s diverse nationality and ethnic groups.