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Rebecca Tinsley Headshot

South Sudan Will Not Become Finland Any Time Soon

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As South Sudan marks its first year as an independent country, there is a mood of despair among commentators. The fledgling nation is already being subsumed by war, extreme poverty, ethnic conflict and corruption, wail its detractors.

What did they expect?

Consider the dire circumstances its new government inherited. All the aid in the world cannot turn a desperately poor, land-locked country where the vast majority of people are illiterate into Finland within a year or a generation or a century.

The Southern Sudanese have endured decades of ethnic cleansing by their northern rulers in Khartoum. The southern third of the country was marginalized, while its oil funded infrastructure projects in the capital. As a result there are 100 miles (160 kms) of paved road in a nation the size of France or Texas. And there are 120 doctors to serve a population of eight million people. A girl is statistically more likely to die in childbirth than finish elementary or primary school.

Equally worrying, those who are disappointed by South Sudan's first year don't seem to realize that the Southerners' former oppressors in Sudan are committed to making South Sudan fail.

In a famous Peanuts cartoon, Lucy promises Charlie Brown she will hold the football in place while he takes a running kick. She whips it away at the last moment, and Charlie Brown ends up on his back. He gazes at the sky, bewildered, wondering why he repeatedly trusts Lucy, despite her treacherous track record.

Such is the international community's misplaced faith in Sudan's willingness to allow South Sudan, its new neighbour, to prosper. Given past behavior, it is plain the Khartoum regime will try to draw it back into conflict and away from desperately needed development.

Time and again Western diplomats and politicians mistakenly assume that everyone around the negotiating table wants peace. Sudan's record speaks for itself: for decades the ruling Islamist regime in Khartoum has been 'cleansing' the nation of citizens who do not share its ideological vision. A scramble for resources, coupled with a neo-colonialist 'Arabist' agenda, has fuelled rebellion in several regions marginalized by Khartoum. Using local proxies, the regime starved or killed two million people in the south, and at least 300,000 in Darfur, earning it several International Criminal Court indictments.

Under international pressure, Khartoum eventually signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. But throughout years of agonising, protracted talks, the regime skilfully played mind games, revisiting and disputing clauses previously agreed. They were present because it bought them time, and they had overstretched themselves, not because they yearned for peace and prosperity. They finally agreed to allow the Southerners to hold an independence referendum in 2011 because they never thought it would happen.

Almost 99 percent of Southern voters chose secession, and South Sudan's rebels-turned-politicians took power in Juba. They took with them 75 percent of the former country's oil reserves, a blow to the undiversified Northern economy. Trouble was inevitable with no agreement on where the border was, or how the South would ship oil across its bellicose Northern neighbor to Port Sudan.

Even before South Sudan's independence celebrations, Khartoum occupied contested areas, targeting people within its "new south," who feel kinship with ethnic groups in South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes and face starvation, yet the international community has been mute in the face of gross human rights violations. Thus emboldened, Khartoum has been bombing South Sudan.

When South Sudan eventually hit back and stopped pumping oil earlier this year, the UN and the Africa Union demanded peace talks. To date the parties cannot even agree which map to use to demarcate the border.

The flagrant theft of government money by South Sudanese officials has rightly infuriated international supporters, as has the smothering of a free media and political opposition. As so often in Africa, the patient, resourceful citizens are let down by their rulers. But whatever South Sudan's faults, it bears far less responsibility than Khartoum for the decades of misery visited on its wretched but resilient people.

As long as Khartoum continues to violate agreements, the international community must make life personally unpleasant for its leaders with travel bans, as well as freezing bank accounts and credit cards. We naively assume they wish the best for their citizens, when they care more about their status and wealth: stopping their shopping trips to Paris will have more effect than "making our views clear to them," as Western diplomats say of their interactions with Sudanese authorities. Also at hand are several unenforced UN resolutions on Khartoum's continuing, but unreported, campaign of terror in Darfur.

Just as Charlie Brown would be well advised to take his football home, refusing to play with Lucy, so the international community must ensure there are consequences when parties to peace talks break their word. There should also be no debt relief; no access to the IMF or World Bank; no removal from the U.S.'s list of states sponsoring terror and no end to U.S. trade sanctions against Sudan. Unending misery for both Sudan and South Sudan is the alternative; and picking up the pieces will be massively more expensive than engaging now.