When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, the people of Sudan, and the people of Southern Sudan in particular, had high hopes about the future of the country. Indeed, when the ceasefire was in place, people’s lives improved immediately in terms of mobility, communication, and reunion of broken families. Many significant events have occurred since then, which have caused many to become ambivalent about lasting peace and the future of the country.
The death of John Garang, the leader of Southern Sudan, was indeed a big blow in the minds of young people. The political headlocks between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) have exacerbated public fears about a return to war. The dragging of feet on the NCP side to demarcate the borders and hold elections on time, continuous war in the Darfur region, and persistent inter-ethnic violence that have mired Southern Sudan have also significantly contributed to public fears about the future of the country. Moreover, the corruption that has exploded—both within the Government of National Unity and the Government of Southern Sudan—have also diminished the credibility of both governments to bring change that was much anticipated. In short, my experience with the CPA has been one of mixed fears and hopes. The April elections are significant parts of the CPA, but not as significant as the CPA itself or the referendum, which will allow the South to choose either to become an independent nation or to remain united with Northern Sudan.
To their credit, through political dialogue, the SPLM leadership and, to some extent, the NCP have been able to overcome some hurdles in CPA implementation. Even though the partners distrust each other almost to the point of paranoia, this process shows a certain degree of political maturity. Within this atmosphere of heightened political tension, their compromises have been reassuring to the public. People have a glimpse of the leadership’s willingness to implement the agreement and put national interest above partisan political scores, despite the ups and downs of CPA implementation. To their credit, they have kept the flames of peace burning. But the ultimate measure of their leadership—the handling of elections and referenda1—is yet to come.
Who actually imagined that the CPA would reach its fifth anniversary? Given the many years its people have been killed and dehumanized, it is almost a miracle that Sudan has managed as a nation to continue to exist. Despite all the political wrangling and maneuvering, at least there is some degree of reassurance that our leaders will manage this final year of the CPA and ensure the country does not slip back into war. A peaceful divorce between the North and the South or the Southerners’ free choice to remain in a united democratic secular country is what remains in this last stage of the transitional period. Our leaders should put behind their self interest and commit themselves to the service of their people by respecting the people’s free choices.
Perspectives from the Up and Coming
As for young people (like myself) who live both within the borders of Sudan and outside the country, we see the CPA as the most significant achievement of the Sudanese people since we gained independence in 1956 from Great Britain and Egypt. It is significant because the Sudanese people were able to sit down at negotiation tables and chart the future of their country. Leaders spelled out every single problem the country faces and agreed to solutions capable of solving multiple, chronic national illnesses, including lack of development and conflicts over identity and resources. As a young Southerner, I see the CPA as the right prescription to most of the ills that Southern Sudanese face. It is also the right prescription for many of the illnesses that have affected the marginalized peoples of Sudan. Indeed, the parts I really care about most in the CPA are the referenda for Southern Sudan and Abyei, and the popular consultations for the marginalized areas of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.2 I believe that the ultimate test for both the NCP and the SPLM is how smooth the referendum goes and how they react to the majority’s will in the South and in Abyei.
The CPA, in our view, belongs to us because the leaders who signed it did it for us, the next generation. The leadership will eventually retire, and we will replace them; thus it is important that we be involved in every process. We can bring democracy to Sudan through youth engagement and the involvement of women. A nation is like a tree which grows up from its roots with new leaves replacing the old ones. The new leaves, of course, do not create their own trunks or branches—they bud and bloom on the existing ones. New grass grows from the seeds of old grass. As young people, we need to understand how the government works, what our society requires of us, and how we can be useful to a new nation that requires our care. We need our leaders to set examples that we can follow. If they set wrong precedents, we might well follow those footsteps. If they set high moral standards and convictions for the country we all love, we can build on those foundations.
Sudan, and particularly Southern Sudan, is lucky because leaders like the late Dr. John Garang came during our lifetime, formed a national agenda, and set examples of true national stewardship. Garang was selfless and called for national unity and equality for all people in Sudan. He is a role model who has passed down his vision to us. The challenge now is how we can best we can implement what he bequeathed to the next generation. Still, it is up to our elders to make sure that they establish the promise to treat Sudan’s people equitably—no matter what the results of the referenda.
As a member of the Southern Sudanese Diaspora, I see a particular opportunity among the youth and young leaders from Southern Sudan who now live in the United States, Canada, and Australia. These young, highly talented and skilled Sudanese represent what Garang once called “the seventh front.”3 Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, this group of young people has been returning to Sudan in large numbers to visit relatives and to explore ways to work for Southern Sudan and assist their communities. Many of them, however, returned to the West disappointed and frustrated at being unable to find work. This is a trend that should worry a true nationalist or someone who cares deeply about the future of the country, as it is already clear that most countries in Africa are losing a skilled workforce. Southern Sudan and Sudan at large, however, are actually experiencing the opposite of brain drain; they are gaining a skilled workforce from the West. If this resource is well managed, the future of Sudan—and Southern Sudan in particular—is promising. I would advise the government of Southern Sudan and the Government of National Unity to create departments within the foreign affairs ministry to deal only with recruiting highly skilled Sudanese nationals in the Diaspora and place them in strategic job positions in the government or the private sector.
One mistake usually made is the assumption that young people make no significant contribution to current affairs. Their role is usually suspended for a later or distant future. In reality, young people are very creative, energetic, and committed to do what is right for the country. Yet, more often than not, they are not invited to participate in nation-building discussions. Leaders may sometimes throw in a few choice words or sentences claiming that they care about the youth and the young people, but they remain reticent about bringing the next generation to the table.
In the April elections, we will see young people for the first time in their lives being able to vote. We will, for the first time in our generation, determine the future of the country. To make sure this happens, the will of the young people must be respected and their aspirations upheld. The novelty of their newness in the political landscape has thrust them forward with energy and hope that their country could be better than the one they have already experienced. If the elections do not go well or do not meet international standards, it would deliver a demoralizing blow to the collective psyche in young people across Sudan.
This is the time for the Sudanese people to rise from the ruins and shake off the dust of shame. This is the moment in history when we can walk tall in our African continent and declare that we are a new nation and a country, born again with a promise to work for the good of her people. We can sound the bells of freedom and democracy in Africa and the Middle East and declare dead the days when it was believed that Africans were incapable of solving their own problems. This is the time for Sudan to promise its children that their youth will not be like their childhood!
In conclusion, I am hopeful about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. I am optimistic about the future of our country, regardless of whether the country is divided or remains as one. I am less optimistic about the elections because I am unsure whether they will be truly free and fair. Indeed, I am actually concerned the elections will mess up the implementation of the CPA; if I were to choose, I would cancel the elections until the referendum is held for the South and Abyei, and popular consultations for the Blue Nile and Southern Kordufan. If the elections are free and fair, they could actually boost the implementation of the rest of the CPA. The only thing one can do now is to vote for—and hope for—the best for Sudan and her people.
April 13, 2010
frontispiece and illustration by Sarah D. Schulman
1. Abyei–a central region on the border between the North and South–will be holding a referendum to decide whether or not to join with the South in independence, if that is what the South chooses.
2. Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states also lie on the border between the North and South. However, unlike Abyei, they will not be given the choice to join Southern Sudan if it decides to secede. Instead, they will hold popular consultations, the results of which will be taken into consideration by the Government of Sudan.
3. The first through sixth fronts being military fronts within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Editor's note: Also see Savo Heleta's essay on Sudan's elections and the CPA, It Looks Good... on Paper (April 6, 2010).Africa, Elections, Peace, Sudan