All day, the tanker trucks rumble up to the White Nile. Young men pump filthy water into the tanks, add a dash of chlorine, and then the trucks rumble off to deliver the tainted water to the mud huts of southern Sudan’s biggest city. As soon as they leave, more trucks take their place.
With water sloshing out of their tanks, the trucks roar past a pipe that was installed years ago to fill the tankers with treated water from the municipal system. The pipe is broken and abandoned.
An estimated 80 to 90 per cent of Juba’s household water is taken from the polluted waters of the White Nile, not far from places where foul waste is dumped into the river. As a result, this fast-growing city of a million people is left vulnerable to cholera and other diseases. Cholera outbreaks have erupted almost every year since 2006.
Southern Sudan is one of the poorest and hungriest places in the world, racked by tribal violence, with rates of child malnutrition and maternal mortality that rank among the worst on the planet. Yet a year from now, this desperate region is likely to become the world’s newest sovereign country.
Half a century after the colonial era ended, the imminent birth of a new nation in South Sudan is the first real challenge to Africa’s artificial colonial borders. Those borders, drawn up in the 19th century by European officials with no knowledge of Africa’s realities, are still fuelling the wars and conflicts of today. They shape Africa’s future, too, by hampering trade and economic growth.
But by acting as midwife to the birth of a new nation, is the world repeating the same mistakes that it made 50 years ago? Will this “baby nation” be able to swim in the seas of independence?
New borders will not fix Africa’s problems. The splitting of Sudan, promoted for strategic reasons by Washington, will fuel a fresh set of conflicts along the new border. It will create a fragile new country, landlocked and impoverished, with a heavy dependence on foreign aid – just like many of the fledgling countries of half a century ago.
Much of modern Africa is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Seventeen nations, a third of the continent, became independent in 1960. But there is an equally significant anniversary this year: the 125th anniversary of the Berlin Conference, which carved up Africa among the European powers. The decisions of that meeting – the climax of the notorious “Scramble for Africa” – continue to distort Africa to this day.
As the historian Martin Meredith has documented, the colonial boundaries cut randomly through 190 cultural or ethnic groups that had existed for centuries. Nearly half of these borders were geometric lines that were easy to draw, yet had no connection to reality on the ground. Hundreds of diverse ethnic groups were lumped together or torn apart. Some 250 ethnic groups were thrown together in Nigeria alone. Around 10,000 polities – including monarchies, chiefdoms, empires and other societies – were suddenly amalgamated into 40 European colonies or protectorates.
“We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were,” British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury admitted as the colonial powers grabbed as much as they could.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, these colonial inventions were abruptly given their independence. Ethnic groups, often hand-picked by European powers to administer their colonies, were soon battling for dominance. “Those arbitrary boundaries carried the seeds of much subsequent destruction, notably the terrible national/ethnic wars that have plagued Africa,” said Gerald Caplan, the Canadian activist and author of The Betrayal of Africa. “Sudan is a perfect example, Nigeria another.”
The colonial legacy also paralyzed the economic development of these nations. Because of the colonial borders, 15 of the new nations were landlocked – a heavy barrier to their growth. Most of the new African nations were still oriented to their former colonial masters in Europe, which continued to extract their resources. Even today, only 8 per cent of their trade is within Africa.
The borders have ensured that Africans are still too disconnected from each other. “We have 53 little countries and we are intentionally determined not to communicate and trade and move goods between each other,” said Mo Ibrahim, the billionaire mobile-phone entrepreneur who has become one of Africa’s most influential business leaders.
Sudan was a classic example of the illogical colonial borders. Its two halves had been administered separately, yet they were joined together at independence in 1956. The north was largely Arabic-speaking and Islamic, while the southerners were black tribes of diverse languages who followed traditional religions and Christianity. The northerners, who had often raided the south for slaves, dominated the government of the new country and aggressively promoted Islam in the south. The resentments soon erupted into rebellions and wars that killed millions of people until a peace agreement was finally reached in 2005.
The new nation of South Sudan, almost certain to be born after a referendum on independence in January, would be only the second created in Africa since the end of colonialism (the first was Eritrea). It will become yet another landlocked aid-dependent African nation.
In some of its villages, nearly half of all children are malnourished – the highest rate in the world. An estimated 85 per cent of all health and education services are provided by foreign aid agencies, not by the government. Clashes between tribes and clans killed about 2,500 people last year, and hundreds more have been killed this year. Nearly 400,000 people were forced to flee their homes because of violence last year – twice as many as the year before.
“Simply declaring southern Sudan an independent state will not bring peace and stability,” Mr. Caplan said. “This will be a frail new state indeed. The south is left with deep ethnic divisions and divisive borders that are a recipe for big future trouble.”
Southern Sudan has received $7-billion in oil revenue since the 2005 peace agreement. But corruption has siphoned off much of this money, and the government has given the largest part of its budget to its military and security forces. “The armed forces are way bigger than they should be, and way bigger than anticipated,” said Peter Crowley, director of Unicef’s program in southern Sudan.
In the capital, Juba, there is no electricity grid, no industry, and scarcely any water treatment. Most people live in mud huts, shacks, tents or other temporary dwellings. When the contaminated water from the White Nile is pumped into the tanker trucks, the workers add a bit of chlorine from a jug, but they admit they’re not sure how much to add. Families must pay up to $4 for a barrel of this tainted water. International agencies such as Unicef have been obliged to provide emergency water supplies to prevent more cholera outbreaks.
The independence of southern Sudan will create a new military ally for the United States, but it won’t end the illiteracy, malnutrition, maternal deaths, or disease outbreaks. If the impoverished people of southern Sudan don’t see improvement in their lives, the peace pledges could be jeopardized and the tribal violence could escalate.
“Unless people are able to feel the benefits of peace … the potential of a return to conflict is going to be greater,” Mr. Crowley said. “Why fight to preserve a peace that’s not bringing you any benefit?”