As vote tabulation proceeds in southern Sudan’s independence referendum, its leaders are preparing for the day when the final results are in. Officials say whether the region chooses to separate or remain part of Sudan they face vast challenges.
The head of United Nations in southern Sudan, David Gressly, arrived in the region before the north and south signed the peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war and set up the autonomous regional government in Juba.
He says the southern Sudanese have been preparing for independence and its aftermath ever since.
“A lot of work was done over six years in a land that was very fractured, many armed groups operating in 2005 that have now been brought on board, very little infrastructure, no roads, no regional government. All of that was created from scratch (from nothing),” Gressly said.
But he and most people working here acknowledge much remains to be done.
Mou Ambrose Thiik works on governance for Germany’s Friederich Ebert Stiftung Foundation.
“The major priority is to get the governance right,” said Thiik. “It is very important because that would set up a good foundation for the democratic system that we would like to have.”
Officials note that public administration is inefficient, particularly at local levels, due to a lack of experience and training. They say it will take time to institute transparency and good governance.
Deputy Program Director Sarah Johnson works for the Carter Center, which has been working for years in southern Sudan.
“There are many priorities: The basics of making sure that it’s a stable, peaceful state and focusing on the basic building blocks of education and health services and expanding the basic government services out into the regions,” Johnson said.
Another priority is money to build infrastructure, such as roads, and agriculture to boost business and jobs.
More than 150,000 southern Sudanese have returned home from the north in the past 10 weeks. Many have been gone for generations.
World Food Program Spokesman Peter Smerdon says they need food assistance as they journey home as well as support for months after they arrive.
“Hopefully they have relatives there. They know people,” said Smerdon. “And that will help them settle down, find perhaps where their family exactly came from and start to build a new life or at least try and resume the life they left.”
He says returnees are to receive help when they plant before the rains begin in March. The World Food Program has stocks to feed up to one-half-million people for six months if necessary.
A major headache is what to do with soldiers who have spent most of their lives fighting. Under the peace agreement, the north and the south agreed to demobilize 90,000 soldiers on each side.
The head of Southern Sudan’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, William Deng Deng, says only 12,000 have been disarmed so far, and it is proving to be a difficult task.
“It is not just turning in arms and that is it,” Deng said. “Because the soldiers you do not just get their weapons from them and you throw them out. Otherwise they can become a community security problem because the only thing they know is how to use their arms.”
He says most soldiers are uneducated and must be taught skills in order to survive as civilians.
The south Sudanese government also must address a lack of security, particularly in the areas along the northern border where clashes continue between security forces and rebel militias.
Finally, U.N. chief Gressly says the authorities eventually will have to address the rising expectations of a people who have suffered for many years.
“The government will have to be very honest about what they (it) can and cannot do,” Gressly added. “They will have to also demonstrate visibly that they are dealing with internal issues of mismanagement, corruption, etc. They need to be able to show that they are tackling those problems so that people believe that if they are not getting something today in terms of services that they will in the near future.”
Civic activist Ambrose Thiik says despite the obstacles he sees reasons for optimism.
“I know we are starting from zero,” Thiik said. “But I think southern Sudan will be able to catch up because we have natural resources in abundance, which if they are properly managed we can bridge the gap. We have very enthusiastic and committed leadership and population.”
Many are hoping that southern Sudanese who have been living abroad will return, bringing skills and investment capital to boost jobs and the economy.