Birth Pains

In three months, Southern Sudan will vote on secession and likely become the world's newest nation. But instead of giddy anticipation, its impoverished tribes are bracing for violent conflict over oil resources

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Cedric Gerbehaye / Magnum Foundation / Agence VU

South Sudan, August 11, 2010 - Many cattle keepers refused to surrender their weapons during the last disarmament program. According to them, they have to remain armed to defend themselves during cattle raids. Further complicating the likely secession are the multiple tribes and internal feuding among the cattle herders.

Countries are often forged in fire and blood, and it now looks inevitable that violence will attend the birth of the world's newest nation. As Sudan prepares for a January referendum that is almost certain to give its southern region independence — local authorities have already launched a contest to compose a national anthem — the world is bracing for conflagration. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the situation as a "ticking time bomb." President Obama will attend a special U.N. meeting on Sept. 24 to discuss Sudan's future.

Some battle lines are well-worn: the Muslim-majority north is loath to give up the oil-rich south, where most of the population is Christian or follows traditional faiths. The two regions were locked in conflict for decades — by some estimates, more than 2.5 million were killed and twice that number displaced — until a 2005 peace deal between the government in Khartoum and southern rebel groups led by the Sudan People's Liberation Army set the stage for the January referendum. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court in July on charges of war crimes in the western Darfur province, has said he will respect the vote, but his army and the SPLA have both been rearming. Clinton said the south should be prepared to make "accommodations" with the north, "unless they want more years of warfare."

Other divisions are more recent. The prospect of independence has exacerbated rivalries between the south's patchwork of tribal groups and armed militias that are also vying for control of the oil; some blame al-Bashir for fomenting internecine conflict. Certain SPLA commanders have turned renegade. Many southerners are alarmed that the regional government is dominated by a single tribe, the Dinka. "The other tribes worry that the Dinka will not share power after independence," says Patrick Gorham, director of Africa Writes, an NGO which studies tribal cultures. There's growing concern that the creation of Southern Sudan will merely usher in a new stage of an old resource war.

None of this bodes well for what will be the world's newest nation, a country roughly the size of France that is mostly desert or Nile swamp. Despite substantial oil reserves, its 10 million people are desperately poor: there's little industry, and most depend on subsistence farming. The capital, Juba, has just five tarred roads. Unless the world intervenes to ease the country's birth, Southern Sudan's new anthem may be drowned out by funeral dirges.