A thousand miles from anywhere, among the empty flatlands and bare rock hills that mark the Sahara's southern edge, Juba is a place of mud huts and plastic-bag roofs where buzzards lift lazily on the afternoon heat and children wash in the muddy waters of the White Nile. It has no landline telephones, no public transport, no power grid, no industry, no agriculture and precious few buildings: hotels, aid compounds and even some government ministries are built from prefab cabins and shipping containers. There are a few businesses, a few score police, a handful of schools, one run-down hospital and several hundred bureaucrats. With the arrival of ever more aid workers, there is now also the occasional traffic jam of white SUVs on Juba's five tarred roads and a small clutch of bars to soak up those expat salaries. But it hardly suggests the improbable reality now dawning on the place: barring war, famine or genocide and all are possible in 10 months this sweltering, malarial shantytown will become the world's newest capital city in the world's newest country, South Sudan.
How can southern Sudan become an independent nation when it possesses so little of what defines one? Many aid workers and development experts in Juba doubt it can. They have coined a new term to describe its unique status: pre-failed state. In public, the international community tries to be more upbeat. But optimism is hard with so little time to prepare for separation. Southerners are expected overwhelmingly to choose to split Africa's largest country at a referendum on independence next Jan. 9, and David Gressly, the U.N.'s regional coordinator for southern Sudan, admits, "There is a lot of discussion about whether southern Sudan will be ready for secession." Asked whether South Sudan is sufficiently prepared to go it alone, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center promotes health and democracy in Sudan, replies simply: "No."
Any premature birth presents complications. For southern Sudan, they could be particularly severe. Sudan is already one of the least stable countries on earth. This is where Osama bin Laden lived for five years in the 1990s; where the government has waged, in Darfur, what the Bush Administration called genocide; where the President, Omar al-Bashir, is the first head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court; and where 2 million people died in two civil wars between the south and the northern government in 1955-72 and between 1983 and 2005, conflicts that left the entire country awash with guns.
A new country born into that environment, which, say, did not have clearly defined borders, or had weak institutions, or was split internally, could spell disaster. "It could recreate the conditions for civil war," says Gressly. Major General Scott Gration, U.S. special envoy to Sudan, describes his task as ensuring "civil divorce, not civil war," and warns, "This place could go down in flames tomorrow. The probability of failure is great."
And that's just the south. Secession there is likely to encourage other Sudanese independence fighters, like those in Darfur, or in the east of the country, or in the central-southern states of Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Carter downplays the likelihood of an African Yugoslavia splintering violently under pressure from multiple forces. Gration is less sure. "Disintegration is not a foregone conclusion," he says. "It's my view that we can stop this." So why is South Sudan even trying, when the price of failure could be war and the price of success might be Sudan's disintegration? Why is the world helping? The answers illuminate some harsh realities about the difficulties of engaging a rogue regime, the effectiveness of aid and the limits of international influence.
Sudan has been a pariah state since 1989 when Omar al-Bashir seized power and introduced a harsh brand of militant Islamism. In 1998, President Bill Clinton bombed a factory in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in retaliation for al-Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Six years later, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared Khartoum was perpetrating a genocide in the western region of Darfur. This was not a case of U.S. unilateralism; it was backed internationally in 2009 when the International Criminal Court in the Hague indicted Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Sudan scholars like Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council in New York City, and author of several books on Sudan, have argued the indictment was cathartic but counterproductive. It offered Bashir no chance to compromise, they said, while making him a champion of anti-Western defiance. Those views may have found traction inside the White House of Obama, who has favored mixing carrots with sticks and made a preference for engagement over confrontation a cornerstone of his foreign policy. On Oct. 19, Obama outlined a Sudan strategy that encapsulated this new U.S. approach to world affairs. Under it, the usual efforts to end fighting and boost human rights would run alongside long-term efforts to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the deal between north and south that ended their second civil war in 2005.
This has some logic. The CPA correctly identified the key issue at the heart of both the Darfur conflict and many of Sudan's other internal divisions. Darfur is not, as Western campaigners often have it, a war by Arabs on Africans or not exactly. There is a racial dimension to the conflict, but Sudan's mixed mosaic of ethnicities and tribes make a nonsense of a clear-cut partition. Rather, the war in Darfur is symptomatic of a fundamental division that has plagued Sudan since independence: center versus periphery. For more than half a century, a dominant Khartoum élite has marginalized and repressed all others Kordofanis and Darfuris, Christians and followers of traditional beliefs, the uneducated and poor, western, eastern and southern Sudanese alike. The CPA's authors understood that the way to a united, peaceful Sudan was to remake it as a place where all Sudanese had a say. They planned to achieve this through a national election on April 11, which, if free and fair and inclusive, would weaken Khartoum's grip. The south, which suffered most from Khartoum's discrimination, would also be granted a referendum on secession.
When the CPA was signed, few took seriously the possibility of southern separation. That was partly because the south's leader, John Garang, was a committed unionist. But six months after negotiating the deal, Garang died in a helicopter crash and his vision for autonomy within Sudan died with him. With the West preoccupied with a high-volume campaign over Darfur, Khartoum was able to drag its feet on the implementation of a deal with the south that offered it only loss of territory and oil. That bad faith reinforced enthusiasm for separation in the south. "People felt they would remain second-class citizens inside Sudan forever," says Ann Itto, deputy general secretary of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Independence became the official southern goal. Under the CPA, it was also an option. Which is how, by backing a peace deal, the world now finds itself also supporting the breakup of Sudan by default.