BENTIU, Southern Sudan—“The people of Unity state are the victims of its politics,” said a Southern Sudanese man I met on a recent reporting trip to Unity state. Some in Southern Sudan joke that this oil-rich state, which borders northern Sudan, was given its name after the signing of the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of war because Khartoum hoped that unity would be the outcome of the January 2011 southern self-determination vote. Khartoum stands to lose a great deal from southern secession; to be specific, if the southern referendum ends in separation, as is widely predicted, the northern government could lose the lion’s share of its GDP, which comes from revenues from the oil fields located in Southern Sudan. So retaining access to the resources in Unity state is indeed a priority for Khartoum.
But the semi-autonomous government in the southern capital Juba has equally important reasons for needing to continue profiting from its oil resources. Aside from the fact that oil constitutes more than 98% of the south’s budget, the south’s ruling party is a precarious position and, like Khartoum, needs funds to sustain its political and military patronage networks.
“Every politician has been made happy by the Unity state government’s resources,” continued this man, referring to the infamous “two percent” allocated to this government according to the terms of the 2005 peace deal. Two percent of Sudan’s oil revenues go directly into the coffers of this state government, a sum that amounts to millions of U.S. dollars per month. Yet the sprawling town of Bentiu feels more like a collection of small mud hut villages than the capital of a state with a hefty budget. Streetlamps line the one paved road, which runs for not more than a few kilometers and terminates near the governor’s residence, but I never saw them illuminated at night. The few small restaurants open at night stay a lit by noisy generators.
So where did the money go? Bentiu is a tense place—the site of violence during Sudan’s contested elections back in April—and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that it’s not wise to traipse through the market asking nosy questions. But the rumors I did hear indicated quite clearly that the local population understands well that their governor is the patron of a network of political and military officials past and present who could and often do pose threats to security in this strategic area. The word on the street is that the southern government in Juba relies on Governor Taban Deng to “meet demands” from the central government. In other words, the strongman governor needs to stay in power to protect the interests of the south’s ruling party and to make sure that potential challengers—who may be receiving backing from Khartoum—are not allowed to destabilize an already fragile situation before the southern independence vote.
Spending time here sheds more light on the southern ruling party’s recent and ongoing efforts to promote internal southern unity in an attempt to increase the likelihood of a “peaceful and credible” referendum in January. The logic is sound; prevent potential spoilers in the south from gaining the chance to receive financial or military backing from Khartoum, which could be used to pursue self-interested, personal agendas, instead of
promoting the broader goal of achieving an independent Southern Sudan.
The open question, however, is whether this strategy will be sustainable after the referendum, when the spoils of an independent state may lead certain actors to pursue even more cunning and cutthroat tactics.