Planning for the Long Term in South Sudan

Building up the new African nation will take more than the short-term missions typical to the UN


The people of South Sudan have recently completed voting in an historic referendum to form a new country. But once the Republic of South Sudan is established, will the international community that so helped to remain engaged?

There are serious chances that the new South Sudanese state may stumble as it gains its independent legs.

South Sudan will most likely become independent in July 2011 when the current North - South peace agreement expires.

What is needed now is the same kind of commitment from the international community that was shown to South Sudan in 2005, when the north and south signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It needs a five-year plan.

The first step is figuring out what to do with the peacekeeping mission. In January 2005, the United Nations Security Council created one of its largest peacekeeping missions ever, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), currently authorized through April 2011. UNMIS has 9,451 troops, 486 military observers, 655 police officers, 865 international civilian personnel, 2,810 local civilian staff, and 422 United Nations Volunteers. It costs $1 billion per year to operate.

There is a serious conundrum at play here. Since the late 1990s, UN peacekeeping missions have been mandated with an ever-expanding array of tasks. Gone are the days of simple observation missions, monitoring cease-fire lines and managing military to military arrangements. Today's mission, as is the case with UNMIS, has a host of tasks ranging from traditional cease-fire management to the protection of civilians, human rights monitoring, security sector reform, institution building, establishing democratic governance and increasingly economic recovery just to name a few. These tasks are performed by the mission with a wide array of partners including but limited to UN Agencies, bilateral donors, international financial institutions, the host government, and NGOs. It is a complicated and messy set of actors attempting to carry out an equally variable set of tasks in tough places -- in the case of South Sudan, a very tough place.

Yet the Security Council continues to keep missions on a counterproductively short leash with mandates of only 12 months. When the international community presided over the signing of the CPA in 2005, it mandated UNMIS for 12 months despite the six-year timeline that led to the recent secession vote. It is simply not possible to appropriately plan, budget, and execute a successful mission on an ever-rotating 12-month cycle. However, while the recent vote represents the end of one road it also portends the beginning of another, which is going to be in many ways much harder and much longer. Building a nation-state, especially in the context of the current conditions in South Sudan, is a multi-generational task. The Security Council and the international community need to make a serious commitment -- as it partially did in 2005 -- by mandating UNMIS for five years.

UNMIS is a billion-dollar-per-year project, and it is likely to increase in size, budget, and scope of operations. It needs a timetable that fits the task at hand, not just a simple annual budget extension. A long-term commitment will provide important political support.

Long-term thinking, planning, and operational execution are necessary to build South Sudan. At an operational level, the UN is in many ways already thinking this way. A regional support base recently went online in Entebbe, Uganda, and a new and permanent-looking UN headquarters is under construction in Juba, South Sudan.

The problems facing the UN mission in South Sudan are vast and complicated. South Sudan has among the lowest levels of human development on the planet. These could require up to twenty or even fifty years of sustained effort to improve substantively.

In the short-term, however, the UN should address pressing "independence" issues. South Sudan needs to separate as cleanly as possible so as to avoid dangerous friction with Khartoum as well an internal instability. There is the seemingly intractable issue of the oil-rich Abyei state, as well as the wider problems of oil and gas asset sharing between North and South. But that is just the beginning.

Borders need to be demarcated, and managed. A new constitution will have to be drafted and passed. The future of government officials and their pay and pensions has to be resolved. Issues surrounding who is and is not a citizen of South Sudan will be sensitive. Furthermore, the new country will need to consider ways and means to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate an army of ex-combatants. Subsequently, veterans will demand recognition and material reward for their sacrifices. There will be the inevitable political tug of war over who a veteran and who is not. Institutions of state are non-existent or weak. Beyond the oil and gas sector there is almost no indigenous or sustainable economic activity beyond subsistence agriculture and the ravages of war have left huge numbers of people dependent on food aid.

Finally, and in some ways most problematically, South Sudanese will need to forge a national identity beyond their resistance to Khartoum. In an ethically divided society plagued by centuries-old antagonisms, along with more recent Khartoum-generated schisms, carving out a common identity will be hard. While South Sudanese have collectively joined together to forge a separate path from the North, violence has been endemic in the South Sudanese hinterland for the past several years.

The UN is about to embark on possibly its most ambitious project to date. Critics rightly point out that the UN's performance has at times been poor where it was mandated to keep peace -- but what is the alternative? The UN is doing a job no one else can or will do.

In April 2011 the Security Council will meet to deliberate on UNMIS and its future engagement in South Sudan. The results of the recent vote will by that time be clear. In the likely eventuality that die is cast for independence, and according to the CPA time table, South Sudan will secede in July 2011. The Security Council should consider the challenges of the future five years carefully. It should then make a political and financial commitment to support UNMIS, its premier actor on the ground, and thus the South Sudanese citizenry, at a time when substantive engagement is most needed. Big missions doing on short timetables have typically failed to deliver. In this case, the Security Council should deliver a smaller, tighter, more focused mission with a long-term mandate.

Photo by Getty/AFP