Secession in South Sudan is a milestone, not a panacea

Despite cautious reason for optimism, a vote on secession should be viewed as a start towards peace for the South, not its culmination, writes Stephen Twigg.

Stephen Twigg MP (Labour, Liverpool West Derby) is the Shadow Minister for Africa

Despite cautious reason for optimism, a vote on secession should be viewed as a start towards peace for the South, not its culmination. For those of us who have been monitoring the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan, the past few months have produced a number of reassuring signs to indicate a relatively peaceful transition to the creation of an independent South Sudan. Voter registration, although delayed, was carried out without major incident.

Belligerents and spoilers, in both the North and South, have failed to undermine momentum towards a credible vote. And in recent days the announcement by al-Bashir that he will respect the outcome of the poll sent encouraging signals. Such developments a year ago seemed a very distant prospect.

Encouraged as we should be at progress towards reaching the objectives set out in the CPA, there remain significant, and well-documented, unresolved issues that threaten to undermine peace. The demarcation of the border, the fate of Abyei and economic issues of common currency and external debt threaten the peaceful resolution of the creation of a viable and independent state of South Sudan.

However, political mutual reliance between the North and South may assist a peaceful resolution of these issues and prevent a conventional war from occurring; an outcome that many observers feared would emerge from the CPA. Last week’s meeting between al-Bashir and South Sudan leader Salva Kiir indicates that the political elite, despite pressure from within their own parties, may reach convergence on the realisation of two separate states. Power brokers further down the chain, however, may not share their leaders’ enthusiasm for peace.

Tensions within the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum have been exposed by disgruntled former allies of al-Bashir. Rogue elements and spoilers in the South may also seek to undermine the process ahead of the deadline for the end of the CPA on 9th July 2011. Proxy wars may be looming in the shadows of the referendum countdown clock that stands in a central roundabout in Juba.

Whilst negotiations continue at elite political level, tensions remain within communities enough to keep NGOs within the South on high alert with emergency contingencies in place. As has been written many times before, secession alone is not the panacea for stability, development and security in the South.

The opening of political space in South Sudan will enhance existing structural vacuums; vacuums that a newly formed independent government in Juba will struggle to fill. Areas in the South, though destined for self determination, will struggle to unite as one people within the newly formed nation state. The United Nations’s top humanitarian official, John Holmes, called the combination there of food insecurity, internal displacement and “inter-tribal violence” a “recipe for disaster”.

The environment in which the South approaches the referendum must be viewed in light of the worrying indicators of mortality, morbidity and security. Traditional development prescriptions will not hold all of the answers going forward in this unique setting. International attention has no doubt played a key role in applying pressure on Khartoum towards progress in the CPA. Following the key milestone of the independence referendum, international attention must be maintained.

I welcome the UK foreign secretary’s prioritisation of Sudan during the UK’s Presidency of the United Nations Security Council. As we enter this, the next phase down the long road to peace, development and stability in South Sudan, the UK government, European partners and the US have a responsibility to maintain pressure on African counterparts to promote and support South Sudan’s state building and democratisation-strengthening efforts.

This poll opens a series of crucial votes in Africa, in a year that will host the highest number of executive elections of any year in the continent’s history. It will mark a historic moment in Sudan, the horn of Africa and the wider continent. For the South however, it is an early though important milestone on a long road to prosperity, development and security for an independent and viable South Sudan.

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