In the recent US Congressional hearings on a review of US policy on Sudan, little was said about the crushing burden of poverty that confronts the average Sudanese– from the outskirts of Khartoum to the outer fringes of this vast and isolated country; the perennial displacement of people occasioned by conflict ,disease, and climate change; and the lack of opportunity and isolation imposed on a generation of Sudanese by both national and international actors. While Darfur represents its most wretched and heart wrenching visage, displacement and destitution visited upon a hapless people is no less apparent in the Nuba Mountains, the Red Sea hills, the rolling plains of Blue Nile State, the drowned cataracts of the Nile, the formless shantytowns of South Sudan, and the teeming suburbs of Khartoum etched on the desert sands. Such is the reality of Sudan.
In the South, a hard-won peace has engendered a culture of entitlement , dependent on the CPA-mandated transfer of oil revenues to GOSS (over $5 billion between 2005-2009), while generous but often misguided donor aid seems to miss its mark. In Darfur, a once resilient and enterprising people have become either wards of international charity (on average over $1 billion a year) or the beneficiaries of a war economy. In the transitional areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the people — who suffered from some of the most egregious excesses and atrocities of the 22-year civil war– wait in dismay over the unfulfilled promises of reconstruction and restitution on account of the intransigence of the two CPA partners to meet their commitments in accordance with the relevant CPA protocols.
The beneficence of oil in the North (an estimated $15-20 billion in oil revenues from 2005-2009) is concentrated on Khartoum and on heavy investments in power, roads, bridges, airports, irrigation and large scale commercial agriculture along the Nile Valley and a few privileged parts of the East (the so-called Hamdi Triangle). Public investment in human development remains paltry, with UN and donors helping with the most urgent needs. Security outlays (especially for wages and benefits) account for a significant part of public expenditures in both the North and the South, while acquisition of modern and deadly armaments remains an important strategic objective . Forgotten in this mindless pursuit of weaponry is that the real deterrent to conflict and war lies in a country’s economic strength and social cohesion. On account of its oil wealth , Sudan’s GDP per capita has crossed the US$1000 per annum threshold—it is now a middle income country –but with social indicators typical of the least developed countries and with widening income disparities. The GDP and per capita income of South Sudan remain an unresolved mystery.
The retraction in oil prices from the mid-2008 highs and the global financial crisis have imposed heavy constraints on public spending in both North and the South. This downturn in the economic fortunes offers a window of opportunity for the international community to engage the governments in Khartoum and Juba in a broad agenda of economic, social and political reforms that go beyond the CPA mandate and prepare the stage for the post 2011 era, irrespective of whether South Sudan opts for unity or independence in the 2011 referendum.
The US Congressional debate touched on the use of sticks and carrots to elicit behavior change on part of the Khartoum establishment. But such debates easily get mired in issues of ideology, justice, retribution, and punishment. The crux of the problem lies elsewhere–it lies in the absence of transformative development that directly touches the lives and welfare of people and removes the soreness of relative deprivation from the Sudanese psyche. Often overlooked in these debates is the root cause of past and current conflicts in Sudan. The two civil wars between the North and the South and the conflicts in Darfur and the East were about unequal development and the sustained and deliberate neglect of the periphery in contrast to the center. A poignant testament to these disparities is the Black Book released by the Darfur rebel groups in 2000. With the influx of oil wealth, the prosperity gap between Khartoum and the periphery has widened. And unless the international community and the power brokers in Sudan begin to frontally address the issues of development, equity, and justice, the goal of a durable and lasting peace will remain illusory in Sudan. If the current neglect of development priorities continues, the South may elect to go its own way but may find itself a basket case despite its oil wealth, the Darfur conflict will simmer on fuelled by the incentives and proceeds of a war economy, no matter the size and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance and the strength of UN/AU peacekeeping. And the hydra-headed monster of conflict will emerge in many more unlikely places as a desperate response to inequality and injustice that pervades the Sudanese landscape– north, south, east, and west.
Asif Faiz is a development practitioner. He served as the World Bank’s Country Manager for Sudan, based in Khartoum, from 2005-08.