On Sunday, Southern Sudanese in their millions flocked to some three thousand polling stations set up not only in Sudan, but around the world to the accommodate the far-flung diaspora, to cast their ballots in an exercise that for many represents the emotional culmination of a struggle that began more than half a century ago. The results of the week-long poll will inevitably confirm that the overwhelming majority wants to secede from the North and that, under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brokered by the United States and others in 2005, the region should emerge as the world’s newest sovereign state.
Between this week’s plebiscite and actual independence, however, there are plenty of issues which will have to be resolved between the North and South—and, even with all the good will in the world, doing so by the July deadline set by the CPA will require considerable diplomatic effort.
First, there is the still unresolved question of the status of Abyei, the border district whose final status was supposed to be determined by a referendum held at the same time as the vote on the future of Southern Sudan. Beyond its importance as a center of oil production, the territory has been invested with an outsized political significance by both southern and northern leaders. A number of Southern leaders are ethnic Ngok Dinka with roots in Abyei, while others have staked considerable political capital on its retrocession to the South. In the North, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and other National Congress Party (NCP) leaders have likewise exploited the claims of the nomadic Misseriya tribesmen who pass through Abyei to rally up their Arab base constituency. The tensions in Abyei were underscored over this weekend when more than sixty people were killed in clashes between the local Ngok Dinka police force and Misseriya raiders.
Second, even aside from Abyei and the two other areas whose final status the CPA left to be determined by “popular consultations,” Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, the world’s newest prospective international boundary has yet to be demarcated. If Eritrea’s 1993 secession from Ethiopia and the subsequent border war between the two countries taught any lessons, it is the danger latent in the birth of a new state whose frontiers are ill defined.
Third, the division of the oil revenues which are Sudan’s largest source of foreign exchange will be a critical part of the divorce between North and South. The CPA split revenue equally between the national government in Khartoum and the semi-autonomous Southern Sudanese government in Juba (although diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks indicate that al-Bashir may have skimmed off as some $9 billion for himself). The South’s secession will leave it with approximately 80 percent of Sudan’s current proved reserves, while the North will retain control of almost the entirety of the pipeline that is currently the only commercially viable outlet to the outside world. While it might seem readily apparent that the two sides should come to some sort of deal to continue sharing revenue, this view underestimates both the political passions which make such an arrangement anything but a foregone conclusion.
Fourth, the lack of certainty on the citizenship status of southerners living in the North, estimated to number more than two million, as well as the small number of northerners living in the South is yet another potential flash point. In an interview with Al-Jazeera last week, al-Bashir ruled out southerners in the north retaining Sudanese citizenship, implicitly raising the specter of mass migration, violence, and humanitarian catastrophe of the sort seen during the partition of India and Pakistan. Perhaps fearing the worst, more than 120,000 southerners living in the poor suburbs of Khartoum have already packed up in recent weeks and fled back to a South that is ill-equipped to absorb them.
Even if all these questions are resolved and the breakup of Africa’s largest country occurs relatively smoothly, the yet-to-be-named southern state will face considerable challenges and the greatly diminished rump of Northern Sudan risks becoming a failed state—twin perils acknowledged by President Obama who wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “the international community, including the United States, will have an interest in ensuring that the two nations that emerge succeed as stable and economically viable neighbors.”
The implications of Sunday’s vote, however, go far beyond its immediate impact on Sudan and the lives of its peoples.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of today’s African Union, formally declared the often arbitrary borders bequeathed by the continent’s colonial rulers to be a “tangible reality” and required that its member governments pledge themselves “to respect the frontiers existing on their achievement of national independence.” Southern Sudan’s secession shatters this status quo which has been maintained for nearly fifty years and has caused sleepless nights in many African chanceries by officials worried it will open a veritable Pandora’s Box of separatist claims across the continent.
These fears are both justified and overwrought. It is altogether clear that preserving the continent’s arbitrary territorial divisions has not been a good thing, since, more often than not, it has benefited illegitimate and, often enough, incompetent rulers, while depriving the African masses of civil and political liberties that ought to have been the fruits of independence, to say nothing of the minimal condition sine qua non of a tolerable standard of living. In fact, a number of African scholars, including the estimable Ali Mazrui, have argued that with or without the development of peaceful means for true self-determination that redresses the wrongs of colonial cartographers, the break-up of the continent’s colonial era states and the realignment of their frontiers will occur sooner or later—the only question, as I argued in the pages of The National Interest several years ago, is really whether the process requires the spilling of more blood or whether it can be managed by statesmen with the courage and vision to face reality and defy conventions.
While many will try to claim Southern Sudan is a precedent for their own ambitions, these claims will nonetheless have to meet the test of political realism. In today’s world, neither the Western Sahara nor Cabinda can be viable states apart from Morocco and Angola, respectively; the far-reaching autonomy proposal which Rabat offered the Sahrawis in 2007 is the only realistic way forward in that long-simmering conflict and represents, in many respects, a model for such accommodation throughout Africa. Other aspirations to statehood are more reasonable: Somaliland, for example, not only was briefly independent from Great Britain before joining Italian Somalia in a disastrous union; what reason would the Somalilanders, who have been enjoyed two decades of peace and democratic governance on their own since the collapse of the Somali state, possibly have to want to be reintegrated into the charnel house that the rest of the country has become? In any event, this same pragmatic standard should be applied to future cases, including that of big African countries which may, like Sudan, prove too immense and too riven by deep divisions, to envisage real peace and stability, much less development.
The referendum in Southern Sudan clearly opens a new chapter in the history of Africa. What it will contain, however, remains to be discovered.