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By David E. Miller
South Sudan is gearing up for its independence celebrations, but for the United Nation's newest country, formidable challenges lay ahead. Weeks before it formally breaks off from Sudan, the south is already under attack while its substantial oil resources hold out the promise of wealth but the threat of waste and corruption.
The city of Abyei, control of which is disputed by the north and south, has been occupied by 5,000 Sudanese soldiers for the past three weeks, forcing its 20,000 residents to flee. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is threatening to block the pipeline carrying oil out of South Sudan unless it hands over half of its oil revenue.
Armed militias backed by Al-Bashir are wreaking havoc across South Sudan, which Jack Kalpakian, a political scientist at Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco and a native of Sudan, said is the most immediate threat to the south's viability. Acknowledging the dangers, the United Nations Security Council authorized the deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeeping soldiers in the region, ensuring the withdrawal of Sudanese troops on Monday.
"The north will accept the independence of the south, and then undermine it," Kalpakian told The Media Line. "The north is sponsoring paramilitaries in the south. The south's challenge is to integrate these movements into the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)." The SPLA was the south's main rebel movement that spearheaded the insurgency against the north.
Independence has been a lengthy and precarious affair for South Sudan. A 22-year civil war between north and south ended in 2005 followed by a referendum on independence in January, with the South Sudanese overwhelmingly endorsed secession. South Sudan is one of the world's least developed countries. Even basic information about the country, such as its estimated population of 8 million people, is subject to dispute.
At least 16 people, including eight women and children, were killed when a Sudanese war plane bombed a village in the Nuba mountains, which has been the scene of daily aerial attacks in a new war along the country's volatile north-south border.
Kalpakian said that if the paramilitary movements aren't disbanded, the country risked deteriorating into a failed state. Worse, Kalpakian predicted the south could encourage insurgency in regions of the north such as Darfur and South Kordofan, which are engaged in their own rebellions against the government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday expressed concern about serious human rights abuses and ethnic violence in Sudan's flashpoint border province of South Kordofan.
"Tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, and there are reports of very serious human rights abuses and violence targeting individuals based on their ethnicity and political affiliation," Clinton said.
Abyei was granted special status and is jointly administered by representatives of both the north and the south. The north said it was forced to send in troops following a South Sudanese ambush that killed 22 northerners.
A report issued by the European Union titled "The EU and Sudan: On the Brink of Change," warned of the high likelihood of South Sudan becoming a failed state, even if the international community maintained its current level of assistance and support.
But Roger Middleton, a researcher at the Africa Program of Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said that given South Sudan's high level of international support and economic potential, the likelihood of it failing is quite low.
"Both north and South Sudan have an interest in maintaining a working relationship," he told The Media Line. "It may be a rocky relationship, but since they are both so dependent on oil they are reliant on each other."
Middleton said the challenges the south faced were more internal than external, adding that integration of hundreds of thousands of salaried irregulars into the new country's army is not a long-term viable solution for the south's woes.
"South Sudan needs to develop a modern economy from scratch," he said. "Oil isn't a big employer, but there is enormous agricultural potential."
He added that highways are being paved connecting South Sudan to its eastern neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia, forging diplomatic and commercial ties. Oil exports account for 95 percent of the south's income.
The International Criminal Court has an arrest warrant for President Al-Bashir in March 2009, but that didn't prevent the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) from inviting him to attend the south's independence ceremonies next month alongside other world leaders. But according to Sudanese Al-Tayar daily, leaders of the U.S., France and the United Kingdom are refusing to come if Bashir is to attend.
On Tuesday, Al-Bashir began a diplomatic visit to China, receiving a red-carpet welcome from President Hu Jintao.
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