Friday, July 8, 2011

The birth of a country

Yesterday, South Sudan became an independent country. After some 50 years of struggle, the South has finally gained independence from the North, and the hastily-drawn colonial boundaries of the 1950s have at last been re-drawn. The historic woes of South Sudan go much further back: through the bad days of the Ottoman empire and the Anglo-Egytian condominium, slave-traders brought up countless slave caravans from the South to Khartoum and onwards to the Middle East.

The new country is both full of hopes and burdened by expectations that its political leaders may struggle to fulfil. The transition from the politics of liberation to the politics of leadership and development is difficult in any environment, let alone one where the vast majority have grown up in a state of civil war and uncertainty, and where education, in particular, has been absent for all but a fortunate few.

Dimly, in my Sunday morning torpor, I listened to a thoughtful analysis on BBC World Service's excellent programme The Forum, in which the chief topic of discussion was the likelihood of "success" for a newly-created country. One expert panellist (Anatoli Lieven) set out the three factors which - in his historical analysis - seemed to be the key drivers for successful secession. First, the existence of strong administrative and physical infrastructure. Second, a sense of national unity that binds people together at a cultural and even an emotional level. Third, a tradition of solving disputes and disagreements through negotiation rather than the use of force. Based on this analysis, at least, the prospects for South Sudan are not good as, with the possible exception of the second, it fails Lieven's criteria.

There is, however, still room for optimism. There is no doubt that the world understands the challenges of nation-building much better in the light of recent history. The new country also enjoys enormous international goodwill and will as a result benefit from very considerable bilateral and multilateral development aid. And South Sudan is blessed (some might say cursed) with massive unexploited natural resources, the wise use of which offers the potential for the rapid development of much-needed infrastructure.

So, just as with any new birth, let us pray that South Sudan grows and flourishes, and confounds the gloomy biblical prophecy that some of the pentecostal Christian churches that themselves infest the fertile spiritual ground of South Sudan purvey: "How horrible it will be for the land of whirring wings which lies beyond the rivers of Sudan" Isaiah 18.1. Better, by far, to acknowledge how horrible it has been, and look with hope and determination to the new future.