As South Sudan becomes the world’s 193rd country, Canadian experts should be encouraged to help its people overcome the immense challenges that lie ahead.
It’s official: South Sudan has voted to become the world’s 193rd country. This is good news for the South Sudanese. They will leave behind half a century of war, and instead of devastation and neglect they can hope for peace, stability – and perhaps even prosperity.
It’s good news, too, for those Canadians who have worked over the years for peace in Sudan. Even before then foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy added the horrors of Sudan’s north-south conflict to Canada’s “Human Security” agenda, Canadians were deeply involved in trying to end the fighting and bring peace to the south.
Now there will be Canadians who want to go to South Sudan to offer their expertise in writing a constitution, supporting a new parliament, bringing efficiency and impartiality to the courts and laws, establishing effective and reliable government ministries, encouraging free media, and building a vibrant civil society.
They should be encouraged – not least by the government’s Sudan Task Force, which is looking at ways to update Canada’s already considerable support for peace and development in both South Sudan and Darfur.
Skeptics will be quick to argue that well-meaning expertise from Canadians hasn’t produced a very good record in Africa so far. They will imply that if Canadian and other donor experts haven’t been much help in assuring peace and the rule of law in established countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, how can they ever hope to contribute to good government in a poor, fledgling country like South Sudan?
Certainly, the challenges are immense. To a Canadian – as to the Economist, in its latest issue – they can seem overwhelming. But we would be wrong to be so negative. Despite the neglect and turmoil of the past decades, despite the appalling lack of health, education, infrastructure, and know-how, there are indeed South Sudanese who have the vision and know very well what is needed for a successful government and country. Some of them are abroad – some in Canada. (We should hope that they will make themselves available to get the new government off on a strong footing.) Others are in Khartoum, and many are right now in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
After all that they have been through to win peace and now independence, their unified commitment is to getting it right. They know only too well that South Sudanese people above all want and need a state that works.
They also know the problems. Much of the leadership of the new country will be more used to decision-making by military command, or to militia tactics. Many of them will be tempted to rely on ethnic loyalties to win the day. They will be impatient with the slower, riskier methods demanded by rule of law.
As we can already see, some will have made leadership careers out of their ability to exacerbate traditional animosities. Others will not want to countenance the legitimacy of a legal opposition who will have no other apparent role but to do the government in and gain power for themselves.
But years of experience in other African countries and their own struggle for identity and respect will have proven to a wiser South Sudanese leadership that government must work and be seen to work at the bottom of society as well as at the top, and that people at the bottom, as much as elites at the top, need to feel they will have a voice in what’s affecting them, that their lives will improve, and that what they hold valuable will be protected.
Of course, there are daunting challenges of resources and capacity. Of course, Canada hasn’t the answers on many issues: any prescriptions we could offer would have to be adapted to local realities, differing cultures, and differing ways of life.
And of course, Canadian experts would have to be flexible, questioning. In particular they would have to grasp fully the cultural complexities, goals, perceptions, and world-view of both those they are trying to help and those they hope to influence for peace. Our advice cannot be offered on the basis of how the situation should look from Ottawa, Toronto, Washington, or Brussels, but of how it does look to the protagonists in the region. This can seldom be learned from western commentators, bureaucrats, media, academics, or even intelligence reports, but has to come from local people at all levels – not just political leaders, ministers, opposition, and the military preoccupied with their own preservation, but from those in education, business, and professional and civil society – and from the “real” people in towns, in villages, and on farms, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of our action.
Canadians have shown many times over that we are able and willing to meet these challenges: we’ve been at it since Ghana became independent in 1957, and we were still going strong when South Africa moved to democracy in 1994. If South Sudan wants Canadian help with getting its new government right, both South Sudan and Canada could be the better for it.