Sudan's crucial north-south trade under threat
AWEIL, Sudan — Like most south Sudanese, traders in the border states relish the prospect of cutting the umbilical cord with the north but face a daunting readjustment to survive the separation.
Aweil is the capital of Northern Bahr al-Ghazal, one of the states flanking the future international border between Sudan's north and south, and in recent years it has become a major hub for goods coming from the north.
Uncertainty over relations between the two former foes if the south becomes a fully-fledged state in July, as well as unresolved issues in the peace agreement, leave question marks hanging over the future of cross-border trade.
In Aweil market, the cost of sorghum has risen by around 50 percent in recent days. While a number of factors account for the hike, southern traders favour one explanation.
"The Arabs are trying to raise the prices because we are separating from them," said Simon Athuar, 25, whose narrow shop in the bustling market stocks mainly sorghum, flour and sugar.
The temporary closure of a main north-south road due to insecurity, cuts in subsidies on some goods by the government in Khartoum and the seasonal food gap in the landlocked south also concurred to raise prices.
Whether or not there is an element of retribution from the north over the south's unequivocal decision to secede, southerners galvanised by the prospect of statehood vow they would rather rely on friendlier neighbours.
"If one day the road completely closes, we will open new trade routes with Kenya and Uganda... We spent 21 years acquiring independence and we will stay here even if there is no food for a while," Athuar said.
The northern Arab traders still active in Aweil market speak prudently.
"We are comfortable here, we are just traders and not involved in politics," said Ahmed Odouma, a northerner who sells sugar and other basic commodities.
His colleague Yakub Faddal, who sells clothes, admits that times are changing and that while tens of thousands of southerners who had been based in the north are returning, he may well cross the border in the other direction.
"The decision made in the referendum was for all southerners. If they say they don't want northerners here, we'll just go," he said.
Most southern traders from the dominant Dinka tribe argued that the political independence that south Sudan looks poised to achieve should also bring about an end to economic dependence.
David Niang Mathiang runs the main filling station in Aweil. The fact that he is probably selling his customers southern oil that has been pumped to the north and sold back to him by Khartoum is an insult to his patriotism.
"The pipeline is taking our oil to the north and in fact we don't know what we're getting, maybe the non-purified stuff while the good oil is sold off by Khartoum," he said.
"We need to make a plan, build our own pipeline, even if it takes years," said the 34-year-old, sitting in his office under the portraits of south Sudan's president Salva Kiir and the late rebel leader John Garang.
The 2,000-kilometre (1,260 miles) north-south border is dotted with disputed areas and the mood in Northern Bahr al-Ghazal, not the worst flashpoint, is a sign that future cross-border exchanges could be limited.
A scheme launched last year called "tamazuj" -- Arabic for "intermingling" -- brought together governors on either side of the border and was designed to promote peaceful coexistence among border communities.
"Tamazuj was to promote Sudan's unity. But now it is clear we are going to secede. As a scheme, Tamazuj is dead, the results of the referendum confirm it," said Ronald Ruay Deng, the state's finance minister.
He acknowledged the inter-dependence between the southern Dinka tribes and the Misseriya Arabs across the border.
"We will need each other. We need goods from the north and the Misseriya need their cows to graze here," he told AFP in Aweil.
While Ruay Deng insisted he wanted trade to continue, he said his state should not take any chances and would develop its own productivity to recover its status at south Sudan's breadbasket.
"The crop Aweil is famous for is rice... The state used to feed the whole of south Sudan. But the rice mills are outdated, nothing has been done because of the war and we have to start from square one," he said.
"Why should we buy all our products from the north when we have the potential to make our own industry? We also have agriculture, we can develop livestock, we have oil in block E," the official said.
"But as we speak, we have food deficits."
The influx of tens of thousands of southerners returning from the north to witness the birth of their nation is piling more pressure on the region and contributing to driving up prices.
When asked if Arab traders were welcome to stay in Aweil, David Niang Mathiang looked out of the door of his petrol station office and smiled.
"During the referendum, many of the big Arab traders went back to Khartoum. Then they came back. But I think that when they will see that our flag is up, they will be afraid and leave without us having to say anything."