UNITED NATIONS As southern Sudan prepares to secede on July 9, the United Nations is gearing up to become guardian of what will soon be its 193rd member state -- the poor, conflict-ravaged but oil-producing South Sudan.
The world body has its nation-building work cut out for it in the south, which is scarred by decades of civil war, tribal conflicts and poverty. There is no guarantee of success, and failure to create a viable South Sudan could destabilize the entire region, analysts warn.
"We estimate that we've got around two to three years to get South Sudan on its feet," a U.N. official told Reuters. "It's not much time when you're helping build a new state."
Highlighting the importance of the role of the United Nations in South Sudan, several years ago the United Nations had the only large-scale printing press in what will soon be called 'South Sudan.' The world body, its peacekeepers and agencies have built schools, roads and hospitals in the south.
Complicating the situation is the increasingly hostile attitude of Khartoum -- headed by the suspected orchestrator of a genocidal campaign in Darfur, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir -- toward the south, the United Nations and the West as the north seeks to crush multiple insurgencies on its territory.
There is also the problem of flagging oil revenues which could prove to be a major burden for the south's inexperienced politicians and government officials.
"Their (the south's) projected oil revenues are not realistic," said a U.N. diplomat on condition of anonymity. "They'll have income, but not enough to cover their spending."
The south controls about three quarters of Sudan's oil reserves but the south is landlocked and needs to ship oil across the north due to a lack of alternative pipeline routes.
Sudan produces about 500,000 barrels per day.
Despite their commercial dependency on each other, the north and south are locked in unresolved disputes and conflicts in volatile border regions like Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, where northern and southern forces and allied militia have clashed repeatedly in recent months.
Even with the deployment of a large joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in western Sudan, peace remains elusive in Sudan's devastated western Darfur region, where rebels continue to clash with north Sudanese troops and militias in a conflict that erupted in 2003.
RISKY INVESTMENT CLIMATE
The south has ample offers of support from governments that want it to succeed. Aid is pouring in from the United States and Europe, and China is investing heavily.
"There is a lot of goodwill from the donors toward south Sudan but also a risk that aid will not be coordinated enough," said Fabienne Hara of the International Crisis Group.
Despite encouragement from the United Nations and Western governments, investors will approach South Sudan with caution.
"Even if worst-case scenarios are averted, as we expect, the overall investment climate in both Sudans will continue to be extremely challenging, particularly in the south," the Eurasia Group said in a new report on Sudan.
"Khartoum could still occupy -- or try to occupy -- oil regions near the border, but the greater risk over time may come from disaffected rebel groups and communities within the fragile new nation in the south," Eurasia Group said.
The United Nations and friendly governments will also have to help the south democratize, human rights experts say.
"As the Arab world fights for its freedom, oppression and human rights abuses in north Sudan continue unchecked," said Osman Hummaida, head of the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies. "And in the south, corruption and authoritarian rule is increasing."
"The opportunity to help the people of Sudan will slip through the fingers of the international community unless this is dealt with now," he added.
On July 8, a day before the south officially secedes from the north, the U.N. Security Council is expected to approve the deployment of up to 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the south.
If, as expected, it is approved, the new U.N. mission in the south will be headed by the charismatic Norwegian diplomat Hilde Johnson, currently deputy director of the U.N. children's foundation UNICEF and author of a new book on Sudan.
Johnson's task will not be easy. The United Nations routinely has to make do with substandard troops, as was the case in Abyei before the Security Council set up a separate Ethiopian peacekeeping force for the disputed region, which both Khartoum and Juba would like to control.
The U.N. mission for south Sudan, tentatively called UNMISS, will be the fourth separate blue-helmeted force in Sudan, the others being in Dafur, Abyei and a mission called UNMIS that monitors compliance with the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended decades of civil war.
The north wants UNMIS out by July 9, though Security Council diplomats say that the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China are joining forces to pressure Khartoum to allow UNMIS to remain for three months after the south secedes in line with the results of a January independence referendum.
To highlight the U.N. commitment to the south, the world body's press office has said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be in the southern capital Juba on July 9. The presence of a major global figure like Ban is intended to give the new state an instant burst of legitimacy, U.N. officials say.
But diplomats say little can be done to stabilize the south if the north and south continue to go at each other's throats.
Michel Bonnardeaux, a spokesman for U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said that stability in Sudan will ultimately depend on the two sides making peace.
"Now is the time for both the north and the south to think of the long-term benefits of working together, not short-term political gains at the other's expense," he said.