South Sudan’s weak fledgling administration could be overwhelmed by people returning home to the newly independent state, threatening to cause conflict unless more aid is provided, relief groups said on Wednesday.
A 2005 north-south peace deal ended Africa’s longest civil war and promised southerners a referendum on secession. The vote on January 9 is likely to create the world’s newest nation.
Millions of southerners fled north to escape fighting during the decades of conflict. Ahead of the vote, tens of thousands have already sold up in the north and made the difficult return journey south, drawn by promises of a better life and driven by fears about their citizenship rights in a divided Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands more are expected to join them before the expected secession takes effect on July 9. They will arrive in a war-scarred south without infrastructure, healthcare, housing, jobs and often even food.
The newcomers, who speak Arabic rather than southern languages, will lack farming knowledge and will want land allocated to them.
“Those issues will continue to build causes of conflict that we want to avoid out there,” said Richard Owens of the U.S.-based International Relief and Development agency.
“There aren’t enough resources and the institutional capacity of the Government of South Sudan at the state, county and below level is not there and we think there needs to be a lot of emphasis put on assistance at the village level and tribal leadership level to help them.”
Relief advocacy group Refugees International said in a report south Sudan was “already in a state of emergency due to extreme flooding, ongoing inter-tribal conflicts, and overall low state capacity”.
“Some returnees may ultimately migrate back to city centres, since communities in the south and border areas are ill-equipped to accommodate new arrivals and provide basic services,” it said.
“It is important that humanitarian organisations establish a presence in remote areas of south Sudan and maintain a critical mass in staffing.”
South Sudan’s government — dominated by former guerrilla fighters — faces a mammoth task building a country and extending its authority over rural areas plagued by deadly tribal clashes, food shortages and devastating floods.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Africa, said on Wednesday Washington would help the new nation “succeed, get on its feet and move forward successfully, economically and politically”.