South Sudan

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Referendum for Independence January 9, 2011

The Birth of a Nation

■ In a couple of weeks, Africa and the world might see a new country emerge through a referendum for secession. In 2005 - after 22 years of civil war - the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement), was signed between the government of Khartoum and the SPLA/M (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement). The road traveled for this peace agreement to realize independence has been long and bloody, with a death toll of some 1.9 million people.

The goal of this CPA will be the referendum on secession for South Sudan, and it seems likely that the secessionist party will gain that 75 % support for independence they need. On one hand one might wonder if breaking up a country is a a creative solution. On the other, one might argue that Sudan has never been a true nation but a third party construct, but that this is what is taking shape now. Ethnic tension is not scarce in Africa and no matter the outcome, this is sure to set a precedent, giving worry to nations with similar problems that this might feed secessionist movements all over the continent. There are many similarities to the 60's secession of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria, MASSOB and oil resource issues. That time few except notably Portugal supported the break-away region in this era dominated by Cold War allegiance and policy. Western Sahara, Cabinda in Angola, Casamance in Senegal are some among others, as well as the questionable federal future of Somalia considering the country like properties of Somaliland, the somewhat stable pirate nest of Puntland and the fallout of the Islamic Courts Union. The Ethiopian Empire is full of tension, and has their own secessionist movements.

So, there are not only happy faces about this and the African community seem rather divided over this break-away development. Jean Ping, President of the African Union Commission expressed that "Will the independence of Southern Sudan not lead other players in Darfur and in other places, which are currently not asking for independence, to seek independence as Southern Sudan will have done?"*

In comparison to the secessionist move of Biafra, this time, this region, has support from large parts of the western international community and recognition of it will depend on if the referendum is deemed fair and the democratic will of the people of South Sudan is truly expressed. The EU has been given the trust to deploy observers "[where] the 110 observers will assess the Referendum process all over Sudan, including polling, counting and tabulation of the results, as well as the post-referendum period.."* Seemingly not a repetition of the EU overseen Belarus dribble of an election, but really the full monty.

Being a military organisation of internal disputes, the SPLA/M government dissent will possibly create problem, especially since the popular SPLA leader John Garang was killed in a helicopter crash and his successor Salva Kiir in the South failed to inspire and lead the former rebel forces, who began to splinter into factions.* There is also the problem of determining the borders between the two countries, who will keep some disputed regions like Abyei with it's oil and others, the sharing of national assets like infrastructure, industries, debts, resources of the Central Bank like the currency reserve.

It might not surprise people that the region is not very ethnically distinct. Here is a range of peoples - some 200 - with different languages, the primary official language being English. It is often called a Christian region - the Christian south - which is somewhat true in relation to the rest of Sudan. 20 % are Christians, 10 % Muslims and 70 % confess to nature religions, which seem to mean that what is the common denominator of these peoples in a crude sense, is that they are not Muslims. One might speculate why the Christianity of the south is pressed, and who wants them to be seen as Christian, but it doesn't seem that very Christian to me. Resources and economy are always aspects to be considered. The oil aspect may also be what makes up most of the interest in the referendum with China being a major player in Sudan's oil sector and a supporter of the Khartoum regime and together with Russia supplies it with weaponry and military material. A "Christian" south may also be of strategic value as a security partner in the region.

There are more to it than it being a religious clash, but basically they seem brought together by shared grievance and antagonism against the despotic government in Khartoum, which is Muslim, but which drains the resources of the south, with power struggles between north and south, among themselves including the organisations of South Sudan that seeks independence. All of this seem just to be one of all these regions in Africa with this common political cultural pattern. Nothing new or different there. An elite consuming the power and resources. Again, comparing to the similarity of the secession of Biafra in Nigeria, Biafra is quite ethnically homogeneous in comparision, dominated by Igbo. What would the international community need to support their rights and fight for independence in this struggle the west still don't recognize? Would it be China becoming the major player in Nigerian oil business, and Biafran independence would be partial to those who supported it i.e. not China? A successful secession of South Sudan will most definitely put all similar struggles in light, which seem to be the reason for the reluctant stance from the AU regarding this referendum. If the answer in this case is secession, isn't it fair to assume that this should be the answer to other regional disputes?

A good point and a bright side of this is that the secession and independence will be gained through democratic and civil means and methods, which might be the foundation of a democratic culture in this new country, and we'll see what color Freedom House will give this would-be nation at the end of next year. Not expecting much green, my hopeful guess is on yellow. On the other hand, democratic methods have been used repeatedly through history as a way for power. The Nazis rise to power being an obvious example, Zimbabwe's Mugabe another, the Mexican PRI version of theatrical democracy during most of a century, the pseudo-democratic regimes of the world using democratic form - for show or not - if it suits their interests; from Russia to Venezuela to Iran, or the recent highly interesting re-election of the Myanmar regime.

Well, what makes a nation may depend on what criteria we apply. The European model of the nation state is not what was imposed on colonial Africa. Decolonization seem to have left the colonial states institutions and social architecture mainly intact with it's interest drawn borders cutting through ancient tribal land, with the Cold War and US-Soviet fight for influence through economic and military support of despicable regimes and movements, combined with the third world relief and grant support from Europe keeping every sub-Saharan country corrupt and occupied with coming up with imaginative ways to get relief and development funds from the west, a donor dependency in part still keeping countries up, and development down along with stability. It's not all our fault. The peoples and the leaders of these countries also have to be accountable for their choices, policy and actions. What seem to be the problem generally in sub-Saharan Africa is that countries are not built with popular and democratic legitimacy. Maybe, there is a collection of countries in Africa, that really never had any business being countries at all in the form they were and are, but should be disbanded into nation states based on cultural belonging and values. Is this recent development of Sudan the way to go for other African countries? It could start a development of rebuilding Africa, following European nations into a healthy revolution of African states, and evolution from administrative regions of colonial interests into modern stable healthy democracies. Maybe. There are former colonies, like Ghana and Mali. that seem to work somewhat well nowadays.

It remains to be seen if this upcoming state will be any better from a humanitarian perspective, if it can swallow it's antagonism to the Khartoum regime and work for co-operation, make it's way into the AU, becoming a member of the Nile Basin Initiative organisation and to make decisions on membership into COMESA and regional co-operation like the EAC.
  • Will the secession bring peace and stability to the region, or will it reignite the armed conflict? Is this a poisoned chalice?
  • Would other weak or conflict ridden African countries be better off breaking up the nations and prevalent colonial borders of Africa, in order to achieve stability and peace in the regions giving them a fair chance to evolve into true modern national states?
What are your thoughts?
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Great article Michael. Did you write it yourself? Good style, nicely put together, comprehensive and transparent read. You are asking good questions in it. I think that natural forces of the region are going to reshape colonial borders. It can only be a good thing.
The article is indicative of a tremendous amount of research and thought.
I hope that, whatever the results of next months election, the people of the south will be able and/or allowed to ensure that they will live free of pillage, murder, rape, and other acts of violence.
Will the secession bring peace and stability to the region, or will it reignite the armed conflict?
Is this a poisoned chalice?

Uhm, where should I start? Of course I am very excited about what the result will be, and wish all the best to the people who (still) live there. But if you consider that the Southern Provinces hold about 85% of the country's oil, plus the government is a -let's call it dictatorship-, it is really hard to imagine that the government will let the Southern Provinces go in peace.

Yes, it was the NCP, the National Party, which came with the proposal in Naivasha Agreement that a referendum with at least 75% agreement of all voters in the south will lead to Independence. BUT, first of all, manipulation is something like one of the main activities of African politicians (and I can tell because I've experienced it there). We recently had the problem with the presidential elections in Ivory Coast and Kenya, in which the opposition should have won, but the rulers didn't want to give their authority away, so war-like riots started. And we are not talking about secession and oil yet!!! Just in October the island of Zanzibar was close to a civil war, as it seemed the opposition will get more votes in the presidential election. But the government acted quickly a few weeks before as it proposed a fusion with the largest opposition party and offered a lot of offices to oppositional party members. So peace could be preserved and the dictatorship strengthened! Kagame in Rwanda also used a lot of imprisonments of opponents to win his last election.

As often with ethnic tensions, I never really know what the real aims and intentions behind them are. I don't know much about the conflict in South Sudan, but again, 85% of Sudan's oil is produced there, a lot of it's national income. If you remember again that religious affiliation is somewhat different in the South, well, that would give a good reason to let some politician there say "Let's declare independence!"
I couldn't find anything about education in South Sudan, but based on the facts that about 70% of the people confess to nature religions and the birth mortality rate is the highest in the world, I can't believe that the local and average population had much free time and motivation with secession thoughts. Again here, a referendum with 75% "yes" to independence doesn't sound soooo clear to me.
And a lot of other questions are still open. Of course, these "ethnic tensions" have lead to legitimate violence against the poor population and this can be a reason for the people to support a closed border to the North. But how safe will the border be? And even more important, where should the border go? Above or below the oil fields?

But even if independence comes true and in peace, I don't give much hope that it will develope beyond Ethiopia, Chad, Niger or any other Sahel country. From African psychology on, the first president will be the one in propaganda who has lead the country to it's indepence, which will subsequently legitimate all his other actions for the rest of his life! This won't be questioned and he can do whatever he wants to. Developement Aids from First World countries will flow in masses to the newly created state, directly into the president's and his friends and family's pocket! Any improvement in the country, for what he will secretly fight against, will reduce the number of his villas, travels, cars, planes and women. Sorry to tell this, but this is what I've experienced and seen with my own eyes. What I wish for most African countries is more or less the benevolent type of despot, as from it's cultural history and background it is the best and most realistic the continent can hope for.

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