By Deng Mayik Atem, Arizona, USA
December 15, 2016 (SSB) — The United States has a new president. When the government of a great power changes, it is a time for both trepidations and opportunities for other countries. Can South Sudan use this period of change to improve our relations with America? As a South Sudanese—American, I believe this is a great time to reassess our homeland’s approach to this crucial diplomatic tie. There are three reasons that South Sudan should be important to the United States.
First and foremost is our potential natural wealth. Yes, we have oil. However, there is reason to believe that we have much more. We know that there are diamonds, gold and uranium in both Western and Eastern Equatoria and in Western Bahr El Ghazal. What other minerals lie beneath our land? Where gold and uranium are found, other rare metals like zinc and nickel are also often found. Without a proper geological survey, we can’t know the extent of our riches, but that survey is something from which both the United States and South Sudan could profit.
Also, because the White Nile flows through out land, South Sudan can directly affect the agriculture and economies of other countries to our north. It would be an understatement to say that we need American investment in the development of our resources, and it would be a similar understatement to say that American interests, both business and government, could be served by that investment.
The second reason for closer ties between America and South Sudan are more ideological. One of the reasons that our country broke from Sudan and voted for independence in 2011 was the militant Islam that had taken control in Khartoum. We in South Sudan, while respecting Islam, do not want our people forced to accept that or any religion. We do not want to live under Sharia, just as we do not want to tell others how they must live. This position is in alignment with American policy. The new American president has made it clear that he does not want Sharia or militant Islam to spread. Our homeland is a bulwark against that spread south from the Middle East into Sub-Saharan Africa. We are a wall that stands between militant Islam and our brothers and sisters to the south.
The third reason for improving American—South Sudanese relations at this time is the presence of China in Africa. The Chinese government has been investing heavily in our country. They have taken a strong role in health and infrastructure. Beijing has built a large embassy in Juba and offered us support and more investment. Clearly, they not only recognize the values of our resources but also our key position in the heart of our continent. It behooves the Americans to balance the Chinese presence because they do not want to cede influence to another major power.
And, we don’t want China taking a dominant role in our country. We believe in democracy and freedom, not central control. We believe in ethnic identity and not centralized and coerced values. Those values we share with America and America’s history of helping to bring our country to independence make the strengthening of our tie with Washington rather than with Beijing a rather obvious preference.
This would be a good time for the South Sudanese Foreign Service to reach out to the new American administration, to iterate these reasons for our amity, and to work to encourage a positive American presence in our country. With American assistance, not only can we work towards reconciliation in our nation but also towards the development of our economy and the building of the infrastructure—physical and human—that our homeland so needs.
The author, Deng Mayik Atem, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” is currently Secretary General of the South Sudanese Community Association in Arizona. A graduate of Arizona State University, Mr. Atem has dual citizenship in the US and South Sudan, and recently visited the country of his birth to see family he has not seen for over thirty years and to attend a Twic State Conference on governance. He is currently writing a memoir, “A Juorney Across World.” You can reach him via his email: deng atem <firstname.lastname@example.org>