The Great Divorce: Sudan, South Sudan, and the Promise of Prosperity


This piece appeared in our 2015 print journal. You can order your copy here


Idealist without illusions. —John F. Kennedy

The United Nations began delivering food aid to South Sudan via the Nile River from Sudan in late December 2014. The newly opened corridor cut through an area of intense military activity, reduced the cost of transporting food by six or seven times, and allowed for the delivery of up to 21,000 additional tons of food to a country on the brink of famine.1

Although in many ways a footnote in the grand drama of South Sudanese and Sudanese politics, this small, lifesaving development showcased both the fortune and misfortune that Africa’s two newest neighbors could bring upon each other. The access corridor was a reminder—amidst the tragedy and sorrow of multiple civil wars—that the two countries remain intimately bound. Cooperation is not a luxury but a matter of life and death.

From the moment that South Sudan hoisted its flag on 9 July 2011 to the cheer and joy of the gathered crowds and the recognition of the world, it inaugurated Africa’s newest, longest, and, by some measures, most contested border. This unmarked border is 2,010 kilometers long2 and home to one-third of the populations of Sudan and South Sudan and holds repositories of vast natural wealth. At the border, it is impossible to ignore the visceral reality that Sudan and South Sudan are conjoined by a complex weave of trade and commerce, kith and kin, language and history, politics and culture. Three and a half years have passed since the South achieved independence, but the essential question has yet to be answered. How, after all that has happened, can Sudan and South Sudan live proudly and prosperously by one another, as separate nations and equal peoples, simultaneously independent and yet profoundly interdependent?

This is a question whose answer we believe lies in accepting the full consequences of separation, recognizing bitter truths, developing a vision of the future that is both idealistic and pragmatic, and working toward peace and prosperity with the support of a regional tripartite agreement.

Separation and its Consequences

Quite often good things have hurtful consequences. —Aristotle

Although separation affirmed the South’s right to self-determination, it also exposed the deep fissures within both nations and has done little to allay the mistrust between the two states.

For South Sudan, independence was a source of pride and jubilation, representing the culmination of decades of struggle. As an act of self-determination, it was a rare example of a Sudanese political process that expressed the will of the people. A new world, long in the making, was born.

In Sudan, the mood was more somber. In the aftermath of the separation, there was a brief halfhearted attempt at a national renewal. Politics stumbled on as before, a cycle of rebellion and repression that lost none of its grinding ferocity. Fighting in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan followed an eerily familiar pattern, with less gained and more lost with each iteration, while the fighting never stopped in Darfur.

Virtually all of the issues that needed to be settled between the new states were outstanding on 9 July 2011, including security, borders, debt, oil, trade, and citizenship. Today, most of these remain unresolved. The two countries have ravaged each other’s economies, fought proxy wars in each other’s territory, and descended into internal conflict.

South Sudanese independence was always going to be economically painful for Sudan.3 Most of the oil is in South Sudan, and on average, it was estimated to have generated between 4 and 4.5 billion USD worth of revenue a year over the last ten years for the Sudanese government, representing 90 percent of Sudanese exports and 50 percent of government income.4

The government of Sudan attempted to recoup some lost revenue by confiscating oil as compensation for transit fees. In response, the government of South Sudan made the decision to cease all oil production.5 Oil did not flow again until April 2013.6 The shutdown lasted more than a year, during which time the economy of Sudan was estimated to have contracted by 4.4 percent7 while inflation rose by 40 percent.8 In 2012, according to the IMF, South Sudan’s GDP contracted by 55 percent.9

The oil shutdown and its dramatic consequences highlighted the fragility of both states, the leverage that oil provides the South, and the deeply intertwined nature of Sudanese and South Sudanese politics and economics.

The Great Unraveling

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. —William Butler Yeats 

Throughout this time, the wars continued unabated. Worse still, new ones were born, signaling what some feared was the beginning of a great unraveling: two nations torn apart by war. Rather than bringing the peace that it had so tantalizingly promised, South Sudan’s independence appeared to have unleashed more war.

In Sudan, the lesson that many drew from Southern independence was that the gun speaks louder than the pen. The language of independence and sovereignty, once anathema to serious political actors, began to emerge as a violent demand.

The wars in Darfur and in the border Sudanese states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile continued, their purpose obscured by the passing of time. These wars made a mockery of proposed security arrangements, drawing each nation deeper into each other’s orbit while walking the perilously thin line between contained conflict and mutual self-destruction.

The rebel armies in South Kordofan and Blue Nile remained connected to and supported by the South Sudanese army, based on a history of shared struggle, shared command, personal loyalty, and politics.10 The Sudanese army in turn provided military and logistical backing to rebel groups within South Sudan.11 Both sides formally denied charges of war by proxy.12

In the midst of this fighting, came the events of 17 December 2013, when President Salva Kiir of South Sudan accused his former vice president of planning to overthrow him, sparking a civil war. This ongoing war has left 50,000 dead and displaced two million people.13

Despite the familiarity of war, there are new elements to this conflict. Darfuri, for example, once the shock troops of the Sudanese army, are fighting alongside the South Sudan army against rebellions in the South Sudanese state of Jonglei, while the traditionally noninterventionist Chinese have sent 700 UN troops,14 and American influence is seemingly at an all-time low.15

In addition, there are new players whose actions are helping to shape the course of events. The International Governmental Authority on Development, an African trade bloc, is acting as the forum for negotiations,16 Uganda has sent troops in to prop up the Government of South Sudan,17 and Ethiopia is playing a mediating role between Sudan and South Sudan,18 as is Qatar in Darfur.19

A war once simply characterized as a Muslim North versus a Christian South has become a multifaceted conflict that involves both domestic and international actors and interests. In order to move toward peace, all actors—particularly the Sudanese and South Sudanese— must look pragmatically at the future and acknowledge some “bitter truths.”

Bitter Truths

Truths and roses have thorns about them. – Henry David Thoreau 

In May 2013, following a meeting of the Supreme Council of South Sudan Muslims, the Sudan Tribune ran the headline, “Bashir Still Optimistic that Sudan, S. Sudan Can ‘Reunite’ in Future.”20 Whether this is what the President believed, or simply what his audience wanted to hear, it is undoubtedly a common sentiment in Sudan. For many in the Sudan, hope remains that reunification could succeed.

On the other hand, many South Sudanese think that South Sudan can and should establish itself as wholly separate from Sudan. They think that the bounds of geography and history that exist so clearly along the border and whose tentacles reach deep into both nations can be cast aside.

In order to move forward, both countries need to face some bitter truths.

For the Sudanese, the truth is that the great divorce has at last come to be and, there will be no going back. It is rare that countries that have achieved independence ever choose to give up their autonomy.

The truth that the South Sudanese must face is that things are not quite what they had hoped for. The two countries remain deeply interdependent. This is a separation where the two sides must share space, income, and family.

Economically, Sudan remains South Sudan’s second largest trading partner for non-oil commodities.21 The interpersonal linkages are even stronger than trade. Millions of people on both sides of the border have trucked and bartered, traveled and exchanged, and intermarried.

For progress to occur, a new approach is needed.

 A New Approach

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.—Albert Einstein 

There will be critics who will say that this is no time to be thinking about relations between the two states, that each must get its own house in order first.

However, neither country can afford the luxury of dealing with its crisis in neat boxes. Moreover, the goal must be higher than a simple avoidance of all-out war; otherwise, there will be an acceptance of the quiet vio- lence of a “low intensity” conflict, in which the army is paid and foreign security concerns are placated.

Denial will not help either. The usual trope of blaming Sudan—and now South Sudan’s—maladies on foreign powers doesn’t move the countries forward. Instead, it hands their fate to government bureaucrats and NGO workers from distant lands.

There are four key points that both sides must accept in order to move forward. This new approach and mindset would lay the groundwork for the possibility of peace.

First, the leaders must accept that these crises are Sudanese and South Sudanese in their making and that the solutions lie in the choices they make.

Second, the countries must recognize that Sudan and South Sudan are intimately bound and will always be so.

Third, Sudan must acknowledge that the South Sudanese have suffered terribly at the hands of the Sudanese and that special effort will need to be made by the Sudanese to assure the South Sudanese that they respect their sovereignty and will work to build the trust necessary for peace.

Fourth, it is essential that both sides begin to imagine a future beyond the current state of war in a way that trades the language of brotherhood for an emphasis on practical details. Two nations do not need to love one another to cooperate, so long as they see the cold reality of mutual self-interest.

Imagining the Unimaginable

Everything you can imagine is real. —Pablo Picasso

In early 2015, peace and prosperity in Sudan and South Sudan seem unimaginable. Yet, it is crucial to attempt to imagine this future in a pragmatic way, as outlined above, if Sudanese and South Sudanese are to work towards it.

In addition to war, there are at least two other factors that make it hard for both sides to envisage a better future.

The first problem is that years of war have created an atmosphere of profound distrust. South Sudan, protective of its sovereignty, often sees improved relations as a threat to its independence, and Sudan is all too often insensitive to these fears.

Second, many Sudanese and South Sudanese are deeply skeptical of grandiose ideas, having seen big visions for Sudan go up in flames time and time again.

In order to overcome these two barriers, a vision for the future will need to be pragmatic, understated, and sensitive to the problem of persistent distrust.

In the short term, the primary challenge will be ending the violence. With the multiple conflicts in both countries “merging,”22 this will require a link between the peace processes in Sudan and South Sudan, a pledge by both parties to cease meddling in the other’s affairs, and a commitment by the key actors in each country to a process of political accommodation, power sharing, and political reform.

In the long term, regional cooperation—particularly with Ethiopia—offers the best potential for sustainable peace and prosperity.

The Way Forward: A Tripartite Agreement

A threefold cord is not quickly broken. —Ecclesiastes 4:12

The key to improved relations between Sudan and South Sudan lies in regional cooperation. In addition to their participation in existing regional organizations, the two countries should create a new arrangement with Ethiopia.

The arrangement could be centered on an agreement that places economic self-interest front and center, affirms the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each individual country, and focuses on four key areas of confluence: energy, water, agriculture, and ports. A tripartite agreement on these key areas of mutual interest would disincentivize war by creating spheres of clear, binding economic interest and providing a framework for reciprocity and trust building.23

Ethiopia is a good choice because it is a country that both South Sudan and Sudan trust. It has long played a role in efforts to bring peace between the two countries and is seen as a relatively neutral actor in the conflict. It would act as an assurance to South Sudan that cooperation is not a Trojan horse for unity and provide a guarantor with a clear and vested interest in success.

Moreover, there are strong links between the three countries. Sudan and South Sudan share a border with Ethiopia, a long history of trade, and cultural and ethnic ties.

All three countries face a similar set of challenges, including implementing inclusive development strategies, addressing climate change, and dealing with food insecurity.24

Ethiopia’s economy is booming, and it has a strong interest in regional stability. It has already signaled that it sees close economic ties as crucial to its future, as demonstrated by infrastructure projects such as a major hydroelectric dam on the border with Sudan.25

In recent years, Sudan has supplied as much as 85 percent of Ethiopia’s oil (most of that oil is now in South Sudan), Sudanese businessmen are a fixture in Ethiopia’s capital, and there are thousands of Ethiopians doing business in Sudan—both in the capital Khartoum and in the east.26

Moreover, each has clear, comparative advantages, so they would not be in direct competition with the other. Sudan produces a lot of wheat, has access to the sea, and retains oil infrastructures. South Sudan has oil and, though underdeveloped, also has the capacity for high rice production. Ethiopia has a massive labor force, hydro energy, and the largest contribution of waters to the Nile (85 percent).27

The economic case for this tripartite regional agreement is strong and would help create an environment that incentivized trade and cooperation, averted conflict, and promoted prosperity.

The Promise of Prosperity

Much effort, much prosperity. —Euripides

If Sudan and South Sudan were able to reach a sustainable peace and to cooperate with their neighbors for mutual benefit, the results could be stunning. A tripartite agreement between Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia could make these countries giants in the region.

There is no reason why it could not be so. Both Sudan and South Sudan are exceptionally rich in people, land, resources, and culture, making the possibilities for peace and affluence remarkable. It will take enormous effort to acknowledge uncomfortable truths, a willing- ness to engage pragmatically, and an act of imagination and courage on behalf of each country’s leadership, but it can—and must—be done.


Tarig Hilal is a British-Sudanese democracy and governance expert with ten years of experience in politics, policy, and research. He is currently completing a Master in Public Administration degree at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Charles Data Alemi is South Sudanese but was raised as a refugee in Uganda. An economic development worker, Charles has worked for Development Alternatives Incorporated and SNV Netherlands Development Organization. Charles is pursuing a Master in Public Administration in International Development degree at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Selma el Obeid was born and raised in Sudan. After completing her undergraduate studies in Sudan, she earned a master’s degree in politics and practices of development from the University of Sorbonne in Paris. She is currently completing a Master in Public Administration degree at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.


Photo Credit: South Sudan prepares for Independence by Paul Banks via UN Photo.



1 Edith Honan, “UN Reopens Nile Route to Bring Aid to Hunger-Hit South Sudan,” Reuters, 29 December 2014.

2 Joshua Craze, “Contested Borders: Continuing Tensions Over the Sudan-South Sudan Border,” Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, November 2014, 6.

3 “Sudan and South Sudan Analysis,” US Energy Information Administration, 3 September 2014.

4 International Monetary Fund, “Sudan: Second Review Under the 2009—10 Staff-Monitored Program—Staff Report; Staff Supplement; and Statement by the Executive Director for Sudan,” Country Report No. 11/86, April 2011, 16.

5 “South Sudan ‘To Complete Shutdown’ of Oil Production,” BBC, 28 January 2012.

6 “South Sudan Restarts Oil Production,” Reuters, 7 April 2013.

7 “Monitoring African Sovereign Risk: Sudan Snapshot,” KPMG, Q2 2013.

8 “Sudan’s August Inflation Remains Above 40 Percent as Dollar’s Exchange Rate Continues to Fluctuate,” Sudan Tri- bune, 11 September 2012.

9 Alex de Waal, “Sizzling South Sudan: Why Oil Is Not the Whole Story,” Foreign Affairs, 7 February 2013.

10 International Crisis Group, “Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts,” Africa Report No. 223, 29 January 2015, 4.

11 Jonah Leff and Emile LeBrun, “Following the Thread: Arms and Ammunition Tracing in Sudan and South Sudan,” Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, May 2014.

12 “Reaching For the Gun: Arms Flows and Holdings in South Sudan,” Small Arms Survey, April 2012.

13 “Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts,” 1; James Verini, “How the World’s Youngest Nation Descended Into Bloody Civil War,” National Geographic, 30 September 2014. 14 David Smith, “China to Send 700 Combat Troops to South Sudan,” The Guardian, 23 December 2014.

15 Ty McCormick, “Unmade in the USA: The Inside Story of a Foreign-Policy Failure,” Foreign Policy, 25 February 2015.

16 “IGAD Executive Secretary Announces the Commence- ment of Formal Negotiations Among South Sudanese Parties,” CEWARN, 4 January 2014.

17 “Uganda Admits Combat Role in South Sudan,” Al Jazeera, 16 January 2014.

18 “Ethiopia to Host AU-Mediated Sudan Talks,” Al Jazeera, 29 March 2012.

19 “Darfur Mediation Team Voices Commitment to Peace Negotiations,” UN News Centre, 31 December 2010.

20 “Bashir Still Optimistic that Sudan, S. Sudan Can ‘Re- unite’ in Future,” Sudan Tribune, 7 May 2013.

21 “South Sudan: A Study on Competitiveness and Cross Border Trade with Neighboring Countries,” African Development Bank Group, 2013.

22  “Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts,” 4.

23  Harry Verhoeven, “Black Gold for Blue Gold?: Sudan’s Oil, Ethiopia’s Water, and Regional Integration,” Chatham

House, June 2011. 24 Ibid.

25  Jacey Fortin, “Dam Rising in Ethiopia Stirs Hope and Tension,” The New York Times, 11 October 2014.
26  Verhoeven, “Black Gold for Blue Gold.”

27 Ibid.