01/24/2012 12:25 EST | Updated 03/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Despite Massacres, South Sudan Grows


As I write this, my wife is in the Republic of South Sudan, managing a team of 10 Canadians overseeing our various development projects there. It was only one year ago that we were international observers to the great independence referendum in which southern Sudanese voted in such significant numbers for the right to carve out their own sovereign freedom. It was a heady moment, in part because so many had thought it would never happen.

And now we hear of the deep tragedy occurring in Pibor, South Sudan, in which some 8,000 raiders killed perhaps thousands of local villagers in what can only be called a limited kind of ethnic cleansing operation. Some of the Nuer leaders in the south have held a resentment towards the Murle tribe for decades, and decided to act upon that hatred. Immediately the naysayers have flooded the airwaves with a kind of "I told you so" tone that reflects their own bias as much as anything else about the South's ability to successfully transition to nationhood.

There are some abiding lessons to be learned from this tragedy and we need to comprehend them quickly.

First, there's no use talking about a "peace dividend" if the West isn't prepared to back it up with resources. Too much emphasis has been placed on a business boom and emergency relief as opposed to peace enforcement. While the tragedy in Pibor was occurring, some 400 combat-ready UN peacekeepers were in the area but felt ill-equipped to tackle the Nuer raiders that they had been tracking for days.

South Sudan is a massive area in Africa, and a spread-out contingent of 3,000 UN peacekeepers altogether is simply not large enough to provide effective security. UN member nations have to rethink their plan, which is probably what they're doing at present.

Second, follow the money and we discover that funds for the raiders were raised by a Seattle-based Nuer community that raised $45,000 (U.S.) to provide food and medicine for the militia group that created the devastation half a world away. Clearly, all Western nations that house Sudanese ex-pats have to monitor this situation more closely.

Third, Canada itself is missing an important opportunity to provide just the kind of government training that the new southern government obviously needs. In my own trips to the South I hear repeatedly that leaders are hoping the Harper government will educate them on the effective model of federalism that has had such success in Canada.

The reasons for this are obvious. The South's major challenge following independence was how to contain all the tribal tensions that would erupt once independence was achieved and their common northern enemy was minimized. Canada has successfully negotiated a regional consensus for more than a century despite its immense size and numerous divisions. Canada's lack of attention to such detail as part of its own contribution to the international effort in South Sudan is troubling.

Finally, despite the smoking ruins in Pibor, overall peace in Sudan is still holding and development is continuing. It has always been the temptation of observers and media alike to zero in on the country's conflict areas -- a natural tendency given the tragic decades-long civil war. But it's a new age and a new country and, despite the occasional altercation, the republic's leaders and their people have kept their resolve to keep the momentum towards peace, development and prosperity on track -- a remarkable accomplishment given the internal tensions.

Sadly, the loss of life in remote Pibor is a timely reminder that now is not the time for the international community to lose its focus on the immense challenge in helping the new nation reach adulthood. Yet the road to maturity is still being traveled in the Republic of South Sudan and must be acknowledged in spite of tragic occurrences like Pibor.