The danger of war erupting between South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, and Sudan is very real.
Tensions have been rising almost since the day South Sudan gained its independence July 9, 2011. At issue: the tenuous border between the two countries, conflict over vast oil revenues and citizenship rights.
During a one-hour online chat with people around the country today, Catholic Relief Services staff members in South Sudan and Baltimore and a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answered questions about the country’s future and the challenges ahead.
The discussion revolved around the dangers to peace, but also reflected the hope that people of the South feel despite the tremendous challenges they face as they build a new nation.
Looming is an Aug. 2 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council to resolve the differences. Dan Griffin, Sudan adviser to CRS, commended both sides for making “great progress” in the negotiations taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but said that questions remain over whether any final agreement will be honored.
“My fear is that the two parties are not negotiating in good faith to resolve outstanding issues, but instead are maneuvering to avoid sanctions and outlast each other,” Griffin told the chat group.
No one said whether they thought the deadline would be met.
The Catholic Church, led by Pope Benedict XVI, has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts between the two nations. The church is particularly concerned for the rights of people of southern descent, who are mostly Christian, living in the north, explained Steven Colecchi, director of the bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.
The church’s concern continues to be raised with U.S. officials, Colecchi said.
Sudan is facing its own simmering protest movement, which has prompted a crackdown on those calling for the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir. At the same time, the al-Bashir regime has implemented a campaign against non-Muslims in an effort seemingly aimed at driving them out of the country.
In South Sudan, relations between Christians and Muslims remain “generally good and healthy,” Alfred Okech, senior project officer for governance and peacebuilding for CRS, said during the chat. He explained that the agency attempts to involve Muslims in peacebuilding efforts and developing capacity in self-governance.
Nonetheless challenges remain. Improved access to health care, better schools and economic development has come to the capital of Juba and other municipalities, but the South Sudanese government has been crippled by the loss of revenues from its massive oil fields. Sudan has closed the flow of oil to Sudanese ports, virtually strangling the land-locked South Sudan economy.
Griffin identified two challenges for South Sudan to overcome its almost total dependence on oil revenues to provide necessary services:
— Establishing what historically was a strong agricultural economy by improving production, access to markets and regional infrastructure that facilitates trade.
— Developing new types of commerce and industry through regional trade and foreign investment.
By diversifying its economy, agencies such as CRS can move from doing relief work to development work, he said.
Chat participant Kathleen Kahlau, legislative adviser for CRS, called for prayer for South Sudan and asked people to advocate for the country to their congressional representatives and the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. government continues to seek a resolution to the conflict between the two nations, but much of the work is being carried out in private, she added. The G-8 and G-20 summits have also addressed the difficulties, she said.
More information about the work of CRS in South Sudan can be found here.