article

07.09.11

Birth of a Nation

South Sudan officially became a country today, but another civil war looms over the celebration. John Avlon on how the U.S. can gain a key ally if it does right by the new government.

A new nation was born today, as the Republic of South Sudan officially became the 193rd country on earth.

But the joyous celebration in the new capital city of Juba should not cause observers to think that the struggle for sovereignty is finally over after two decades of bloody civil war. Because without sustained attention from the international community, the youngest nation on earth could find itself fighting for its life within weeks.

The most basic condition of nationhood is defined borders. The Republic of South Sudan, however, does not have its final borders yet set. The still-contested region of Abyei has been the target of repeated violence since the January 2011 referendum in which the South voted 99% to secede from the North. Over 80,000 ethnic Ngok Dinka have been displaced from their homes in Abyei and driven South as refugees. Villages have been systematically burned to the ground and hundreds of people have been murdered.The bridge that connects Abyei to the South has also been deliberately demolished by Northern troops to make it all but impossible for refugees to return. I crossed that bridge six months ago and spent time with the people of Abyei. Their worst fears have become reality with little international outcry, let alone intervention.

Evidence of the violence in Abyei was captured on satellite by the Satellite Sentinel Project, envisioned by George Clooney and executed by the Enough Project, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and DigitalGlobe. On the surface, armed members of the neighboring Missiriya tribe are to blame, but signs point to their encouragement by the Islamist government of the North, whose President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity by the Hague for his involvement in the Darfur genocide, where accusation of ethnic cleansing continues.

Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast has explained the likely scenario to me as being “like Yugoslavia—if you want the territory, you go knock the people off it and move into those areas and then you start negotiating." This would fit previous patterns.

Abyei is not the only area in Sudan that has suffered an escalation of violence in recent months. More than 350 structures in el-Feid village in the Nuba Mountain area of South Kordofan, Sudan, were destroyed in April, again according to imagery made public by the Satellite Sentinel project. Violence has escalated in the last month, with daily reports of gunfire and artillery–including the hunting of human beings by assault helicopter – all causing Congressman Hank Johnson to take to the floor of the House of Representatives and call for an investigation into allegations of war crimes.

President Salva Kiir proudly wears a black cowboy hat given to him by President George W. Bush.

On Friday, the UN Security Council belatedly authorized the dispatch of 7,000 military personnel and 900 international police to help shore up security in the South as President Salva Kiir takes formal control of his country. But the UN has a record of witnessing slaughter in Sudan – and Abyei in particular – while being unable to respond with force, causing a crisis of credibility. Likewise, there have been reports of violence stemming from Southern splinter groups as well. This is a land that has seen more than its share of blood and brutality.

But the triumph that independence represents should not be under-appreciated. More than 2 million people were murdered during the bloody 21-year civil war than ended in 2005 with the Bush Administration-negotiated Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The fact that the people of Southern Sudan will finally have their own country is a literally historic event that many people never thought they would see. Witnessing the referendum for independence was one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen in my life – the hard won miracle of democracy delivering what so many had fought for so long. It is cause for celebration. But that spirit cannot be allowed to extend into complacency.

The United States gains a great ally with the birth of the Republic of Southern Sudan. It is a largely Christian nation whose official language is now English. It sits at a strategic mid-point in east Africa along the banks of the Nile. Many Sudanese sought asylum in the United States when the civil war was ongoing. There is a deep affinity between our two nations, despite the distance. As his trademark, President Salve Kiir proudly wears a black cowboy hat given to him by President George W. Bush. Likewise, President Obama is revered, at least in part because he made stopping the genocide in Darfur one of his signature issue during the time he was in the Senate.

The Republic of Southern Sudan has more than its share of challenges ahead, but it will almost certainly be a strong friend of the United States – especially if we return the favor.

That will require sustained attention – not something our country or culture is good at. I continue to remember a brilliant line written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof when he was banging the drum about the genocide in Darfur in repeated columns during 2005. The good news, he said, was that people were starting to pay attention. At this rate it would only take a quarter of a million more deaths for Darfur to take on the resonance of the Laci Peterson case. Replace Peterson’s name with Casey Anthony, and the problem remains the same. Dictators depend on the dark – they wait for international attention to go elsewhere and then they attack or destabilize according to their interests.

If we want to preserve the hope that greets the birth of this new nation, the United States and the United Nations needs to see that the issue of Abyei is settled, with the local Ngok Dinka people allowed to exercise self-determination. We need to keep the focus on both North and South Sudan, using the full range of policy carrots and sticks at our disposal.

The ultimate incentive is the fact that starting today, local skirmishes can no longer be dismissed as tribal conflicts or the flaring embers of a civil war. It will be two independent nations fighting, armed with conventional weapons and no shortage of bad blood between them. Without incentives and intervention, the world’s newest nation could quickly become the site of the world’s newest war.