An amazing thing to witness

South Sudan, July 13, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Africa Director Matthew Lovick. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Africa Director Matthew Lovick was in Juba for South Sudan's Independence Day on July 9, 2011. Lovick has been working in East Africa with Mercy Corps since November 2005, and he did a short-term consultancy in the region for another organization earlier that same year.

He had worked previously in Africa in the 1980s; he joined the Peace Corps in Mali and then worked there on development and conservations issues for several years.

Q: What was the scene on the street on Independence Day?

Matthew Lovick: It was an amazing thing to witness. The Mercy Corps team attended the Independence Day celebration at the mausoleum of Dr. John Garang, a South Sudanese hero. The day included a military parade, singing of the national anthem, remarks by international diplomats like United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and the very moving raising of the flag of South Sudan for the first time. Even Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — with whom the South Sudanese have had a sometimes very tense relationship — attended and received cheers from the crowd.

But the most incredible thing was the crowd of South Sudanese — probably more than 100,000 people — who came out to celebrate their independence. People waited for hours, standing in the hot sun, many of them wrapped in South Sudan’s new flag, singing and dancing. The South Sudanese have suffered so much for so long — to say they were jubilant is an understatement.

Q: What does South Sudan’s independence mean to you? Do you personally feel hopeful for the future of the country?

Lovick: This is a hugely significant event. South Sudan is now the world’s 193rd country, and the newest country in Africa. It is the first time since colonialism that Africans have drawn their own borders.

South Sudan will have many hurdles to overcome — especially in the short term — and this will be extremely challenging. In addition to the new country’s many development problems, there are glaring legacy issues such as a lack of clearly demarcated borders, worsening violence in the border areas, no agreement over the North-South division of oil revenues, and the potential for significant inter-ethnic violence, especially in the Abyei area and Unity and Lakes States. In addition, as many 2.5 million Southern Sudanese living in Sudan may flood into the South — by force or by choice — in the coming months.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the people of South Sudan?

Lovick: As of its independence on July 9, South Sudan will be one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people live on less than $1 a day, and many are subsistence farmers and traditional herders. Most people in South Sudan have very little access to resources that Americans would consider basics: roads, education and medical care, but also sufficient food, electricity and clean water. Most South Sudanese have had their lives severely disrupted by more than three decades of civil war so they've had to stop and restart their lives — maybe multiple times. Many unlearned — and now must relearn — how to engage in agriculture, commerce and a normal lifestyle.

Q: With all the renewed conflict on the border – at Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile – do you think peace between North and South is really possible? Will South Sudan really be able to move forward, beyond conflict?

Lovick: South Sudan’s ability to move beyond conflict really depends on Sudan’s commitment to building and maintaining peace. Peace is a two-way street and there have been violations of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on both sides, but at times South Sudan’s northern neighbor has disproportionately been the aggressor.

There is also the very real possibility of inter-ethnic conflict within South Sudan. To avoid violence, the South must forge a national identity that is compelling and relevant to its many different ethnic groups. South Sudan will also need to undertake the extremely difficult tasks of integrating various ethnic groups and reconciling their political and economic interests. Current structures tend to favor a small minority of the ethnic groups, and power is based on the legacy of military leadership during the Civil War.

Elections should help resolve these structural issues and allow a more equitable distribution of power, but ultimately top leadership — starting with President Salva Kiir — will have to set an example for the rest of the country.

Q: The establishment of South Sudan will have a significant impact on East Africa’s stability and future. What’s at stake there?

A: The establishment of South Sudan will likely — at least in the short term — heighten regional instability. Anytime you have a very young country that’s highly politically unstable, it destabilizes surrounding countries. South Sudan’s neighbors are all unstable regimes: the Central African Republic, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instability is exacerbated by an abundance of natural resources such as oil, fertile land and potentially huge reserves of minerals — all of which South Sudan possesses — because internal and external parties will vie to exploit them.

The country’s first months and even years will be a very challenging and sensitive time, but stability can spread as easily as instability. If South Sudan can make meaningful political and economic process, it has the potential to have a stabilizing effect on its neighbors.

Q: Many of our Mercy Corps country programs have also witnessed moments of political change and a renewal of people's hope in their future. How does that look in South Sudan? What do you think actors like Mercy Corps can do to support people's hope and visions for a better future in a place like South Sudan? What's the best role we can play?

Lovick: Our most meaningful role would be to promote grassroots economic development, build the capacity of civil society and strengthen local government institutions in South Sudan. This is where our work has already focused for the past five years.

In the realm of economic development, we should work to move people from an emergency setting where they’re given food and other basic resources, to a situation where they can grow and sell their own food. This can be done through targeted agricultural programming and the development of market value chains. There’s no reason that the South Sudanese can’t take care of their own internal food needs, and potentially become a net exporter of food. Someone in Juba should not have to buy tomatoes imported from Uganda.

On the civil society and government capacity work, it is imperative that South Sudan build an inclusive political process that takes the concerns of all stakeholders into account. Government should be responsive to the needs of its citizens, and citizens should be informed and able to hold their government accountable.