A landmark week-long referendum for a new state of south Sudan in Africa’s north-east ended on Saturday. Though the final verdict is unlikely to emerge before next month, early results suggest that the south Sudanese have voted overwhelmingly in favour of secession from the north. The world’s newest nation is about to be created.
Decades of ethnic and religious conflict between north and south Sudan have left millions, mainly south Sudanese, dead. Many more have been displaced. Understandably then, the imminence of secession has generated considerable euphoria in the south. But secession is not the same as nationhood; in that sense, south Sudan’s greatest challenge is yet to come.
A major fault line for the new state could be oil—the great driver of the Sudanese political economy. Around 80% of Sudan’s oilfields lie in the south, while the refineries and much of the crucial pipeline to Port Sudan are in the north. That means the south will have to depend on its erstwhile oppressor, at least temporarily, to be able to utilize its greatest resource. Already, the oil-rich region of Abyei is a flashpoint between the two.
Prolonged conflict has also meant severe developmental inadequacy in the south, on crucial metrics such as food security, literacy, infant mortality and access to water and sanitation. That spells further dependence, not just on the north, but also on other countries.
India is well placed to plug many of these gaps. To be sure, its investment in Sudan’s oil industry is a sore point with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which led the secession movement. Oil revenue often helped finance the north’s war on the south. But India can help create the infrastructure and institutions that a nascent south Sudan needs. Doing so would also help India expand its footprint in Africa, and may reduce China’s lead on the continent. South Sudan is unlikely to forget Beijing’s heavy investment in oil, and consistent supply of arms and military equipment to the north.
New states in Africa haven’t had it easy. Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, existed for less than three years amid a devastating civil war before being reannexed. Humanitarian concerns apart, India and south Sudan’s respective self-interest alone can help the new state to a brighter future.
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