Southern Sudan today begins the process of formally separating from the North. Voting in the referendum begins today and will continue for some time. Voters are almost certain to vote for eventual independence, likely to be in July 2011. At that point Southern Sudan will bring the number of nations in the world to 193.  The world is arriving for the party.  And there is no doubting the popular will to succeed peacefully.

But voting on Sunday (or during the following week) only marks the begin of a process which is far from guaranteed to deliver safety and welfare for the new country’s citizens; or national or regional stability.  As the citizens and their guests celebrate the vote today, there is likely to be a long hangover tomorrow.

The sad truth is that those citizens of the world’s newest state who are poor, marginalised and insecure now will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Indeed once the unifying spirit engendered by the popular will to break away from the North dissipates, many domestic political, social, economic and security tensions which have been parked are likely to bubble up.  The morning after the night before will be fragile.

Following a vote for independence, on the agenda are:

– reaching agreement with the North on how to address those issues necessary to separate the two states.  Currency, citizenship, land ownership, what to do about national security institutions and a host of other challenging issues need to be addressed.  Some – possibly all – of these issues can be parked until later.  But experience elsewhere in the region highlights the dangers of doing so.  Ethiopia and Eritrea parked the question of currency.  The resulting tensions arguably sparked the as yet unresolved border conflict.

– reaching agreement with the proliferating number of Southern political parties on the nature and composition of Southern Sudan’s government is not going to be easy.  There is already agreement that an interim government should include groups outside Salva Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  But the question of which ones and who they represent is highly contested.

– At the same time, Southern Sudan needs to start delivering basic services to its citizens.  And to be seen to doing so.  In terms of need, the government in Juba is largely irrelevant to the majority of Southern Sudan’s citizens.  A de facto process of decentralisation has made State Governors more relevant to citizens than the national structures of government.  At best, this places instruments of power and resources in the hands of an individual closer to the needs of citizens.  But at worst, this creates centres of political and security power far from the centre.  Making government relevant after the vote is a key challenge.

As if these challenges were not enough, and independent Southern Sudan will radically alter the look and feel of the region.  Southern Sudan is clearly looking towards the East African Community.  And East Africa is reaching out to embrace the emerging country in a fraternal hug.  But Juba will need to be clear why its neighbours are so keen to keep it close.  Uganda and Ethiopia see Southern Sudan as an economic hinterland.  A place into which their commercial sectors can expand, helping to address domestic pressures such as rising unemployment.  Kenya and Ethiopia are keen to attract Southern Sudanese business for their ports.  (Of course, Ethiopia doesn’t have any actual ports but it has invested significantly in the transport infrastructure to both Djibouti and Berbera – both of which are closer to Juba than Mombasa.)  And Uganda and Rwanda are keen to help develop Southern Sudan’s oil refining capacity so that they are not so reliant on Kenya.  Finally, and looking much further ahead, Southern Sudan will be another significant Nile Basin state.  Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda (and to a lesser degree Eritrea and Kenya) badly want to alter the balance of power of the use of Nile waters.

But for now, the government in Juba might also want to ask itself why they get so much attention from the United States.  It can’t just be brotherly love.  And the concerns of Southern Christian voters in the US don’t really explain it either.  Is it perhaps the case that the US have spotted the strategic potential of the country too?

So as the hangover clears, Juba will need to get to grips with the cold light of day quite quickly.  But can it?