What no-one had doubted for quite some time became official on 7 February 2011 with the announcement of the final results of the referendum in South Sudan: a new independent state will emerge on the African continent, the first in over a decade since the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993. As clear as the vote for independence was, as formidable are the challenges lying ahead for North and South, as well as the international community at large.

Although Sudan’s president  Omar Hassan al-Bashir announced that he would recognise and accept the result of the popular vote in the South, a potentially violent border dispute is looming over Abyei, where voting in a parallel referendum on whether the region is to remain with the North or join the South has been suspended amid heavy fighting between local tribes. Talks between North and South on resolving the impasse over the resource-rich area have stalled. Even if North and South are not dragged into a full-scale war, instability in Abyei and a lingering dispute will hardly be conducive to a smooth transition to independence for the South and constructive post-independence relations with the North.

Yet, this is not where the challenges of independence stop. The South faces a major economic development problem. Rich in oil, mineral resources and teak, it is poor in infrastructure and heavily dependent on trade with the North. The South lacks even the most basic infrastructure from a road network and electricity grid to a sewage system, public healthcare and running water even in the main towns, mostly due to a long war between North and South that started in the 1980s, exacerbating an already obvious development gap.  Lack of investment is partly responsible for food shortages, too, with food processing plants out-dated and unable to cope with even local demand despite an otherwise productive agricultural sector in a generally fertile environment. Simultaneously there is a local skills shortage making development dependent on foreign investment not only in terms of money.

Heavy reliance on oil is a typical blessing in disguise. It generates significant for the Southern government which can be reinvested into developing a broader-based economy. Yet the only major export route is a pipeline through the North, with refineries in the South far and few between. The fact that about 85% of Sudan’s current oil production is coming from the South is, despite a variety of wealth-sharing agreements in place, a frightening prospect for the North where around 90% of export-generated GDP is from oil. China is a major stakeholder in most existing contracts in Southern oilfields, and will thus be heavily affected by any attempts to untangle current contracts by the time that the various wealth-sharing agreements expire in July 2011. This will be particularly tricky in relation to three so-called producing blocks that straddle the new North-South border, involving not only contract management, but ownership of infrastructure, responsibility for staff, and potentially incompatible tax systems. Combined with an expectation that Southern oil reserves are likely to begin running dry in about 15 years, the typically costly investment in oil infrastructure may not be forthcoming as quickly and comprehensively as hoped, unless North and South agree on forming a joint venture, which is, however, rather unlikely.

An equally significant challenge is fiscal in nature—the future of the Sudanese currency, the pound since 2007 when the then still unified country dropped the dinar. With its value reduced over the past four years by over 10% against the US Dollar, it is not clear what plans North and South now have to resolve the currency issue, and alongside it questions of national and foreign assets and debts.

A range of other economic, developmental and humanitarian issues, quite often deeply entangled, are also on the agenda for the next five months, including water and grazing rights for nomadic tribes along the border between the now two countries. They include citizenship and the rights of northerners in the south and southerners in the north—a perhaps overly simplistic shorthand for the very complex ethnic, religious and cultural identities that cut across physical and tribal boundaries.

As can be expected in any post-civil war situation, security challenges remain high. As part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, joint units were created between North and South, and these must be separated now, including their equipment. Recent violence caused by a mutiny within one the ‘integrated units’ lead to more than 50 people killed and could be an ominous sign of things to come.

Apart from challenges between North and South, each also faces their own domestic political challenges. In the North, fighting in Darfur has intensified again and a question mark hangs over the progress, and possibly future, of the Doha peace talks between Khartoum and the western movements. Tensions in eastern Sudan could also rise again and destabilise the North, quite apart from the so far short-lived popular protest movement which might gain renewed momentum depending on how the situations in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan develop.

The South, too, has its own political problems. The near-unanimity of the pro-independence vote, genuine as it may have been, glosses over a highly diverse social, ethnic, religious, and cultural make-up. An interim constitution has been in place since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, but is, like most of the provisions dating back to 2005, due to expire in July when the South is expected to declare its independence officially. It does not bode well for the democratic future of the new state that a committee charged with amending the existing constitution and creating a permanent one excludes opposition parties and civil society organisations.

Politicians in the North and South clearly have their work cut for them over the next five months to manage the process of separation, as do those in the region and the wider international community. The challenge is to make a success of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, not in order to create a precedent for secession as a mechanism to settle civil wars, but to prevent the two countries from being dragged into another war with all its nasty consequences for the civilian population and regional stability in this volatile part of Africa.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK. His website is www.stefanwolff.com

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