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Feb 1, 2011 | Commentary

January in Sudan was dominated by anticipation for and the conduct of Southern Sudan’s self-determination referendum, with approximately 4 million voters going to the polls to choose whether to split Africa’s largest country.  Provisional results show an overwhelming vote for an independent Southern Sudan, which will likely become Africa’s 55th sovereign state on July 9, 2011, the concluding date of Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Another important development with as much symbolism for Southern Sudan’s future relations with northern Sudan received far less coverage: the birth of Southern Sudan’s air force.

The second delivery of a $75 million delayed order of 9 Mi-17 V5 military transport helicopters and 1 Mi-172 VIP transport helicopter from Russia’s Kazan Helicopters arrived in Juba in early January.  The Mi-8/17 helicopter model is amongst the most successful ever, a workhorse in service in at least 90 countries.  Kazan estimates that at least 11,000 have been produced since it was first introduced.

SPLA spokesman Col. Philip Aguer Panyang told me that the fleet will be the “nucleus of the SPLA air force…this is about transforming the SPLA from a guerilla army to a conventional force.”

A flypast ceremony was held at Juba airport on January 25, attended by Southern Sudan’s political elite.  To applause from the crowd, one helicopter, hoisting aloft the flag of Southern Sudan (and the de facto banner of the ruling party, the SPLM) completed a short circuit in the environs of Juba airport (whether a SPLA officer was piloting the aircraft is unknown).  Curious troops swarmed the helicopters for a closer look.  The next day Eritrean musicians held a concert for the rank and file at the SPLA’s general headquarters just north of Juba to celebrate the arrival of the air force’s first aircraft.

While the International Crisis Group previously described the order as “probably a technical violation” of the CPA’s reporting requirements for the import of military hardware, the northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are apparently unconcerned.  “They are transport helicopters…Obviously they can be used as military helicopters if they want, but it seems they are not intending to do that,” said a SAF spokesman.

Col. Aguer concluded to me triumphantly: “These [helicopters] are a gift of the Commander in Chief, General Salva Kiir [the President of Southern Sudan and Chairman of the SPLM], for the transformation of the SPLA.”  Future military acquisitions of capital equipment (including tanks) are likely, and may even accelerate post-referendum.  Rumours that Israel will assist Southern Sudan in re-militarization periodically circulate, doubtful and unsubstantiated though they are – military assistance is far more likely from the United States.  But transformation of the SPLA will need more than just new equipment and powerful friends.  Separating the political leadership from the military command would be a good start.