On January 9, 2011, the people of southern Sudan will take part in an unusual election that will determine the future of their conflict-ravaged country. They will vote on whether or not they will continue to be part of Sudan, or whether they will break away and form their own, independent country of South Sudan. Rarely have such decisions been taken lightly. While the breakup of the former Eastern European state of Czechoslovakia into two separate states (the Czech Republic and Slovakia) was relatively peaceful, far more often the question of Secession leads to violent efforts to preserve the existing distribution of power. In Biafra (Nigeria), East Pakistan (Bangladesh), Chechnya (Russia), Eritrea (Ethiopia), Kosovo, Bosnia, and even in the United States during the U.S. Civil War, efforts by one group of people to break away from another and form their own state are often met with a sharp—frequently violent—response.
Most observers believe the people of South Sudan will vote in favor of independence, and the international community has slowly begun to mobilize in anticipation. But there will be many issues to deal with: citizenship and nationality, distribution and control over natural resources, security, international treaty obligations, currency and trade, just to name a few. Complicating the situation is the distribution of Sudan’s oil resources. While the oil reserves are located primarily in the southern part of the country, the pipelines to ship it out of the country and sell the oil flow through the north. Any peaceful transition will have to address these complicated issues.
Far more likely, unfortunately, is the possibility of a protracted conflict. Ahead of its break from Ethiopia, Eritrea fought an extended war of independence (lasting from 1961 to 1991). After a referendum and peaceful separation in 1993, the two countries went to war in 1998, fighting along their disputed border. The war, which lasted a little more than two years, cost Ethiopia and Eritrea—two of the world’s poorest countries—hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of casualties.
International observers are mobilizing to prevent a similar occurrence in South Sudan. George Clooney has lent his star power to support an initiative by the United Nations and Harvard University to use satellites to monitor developments in southern Sudan, hoping to prevent genocide there. Meanwhile, former South African President Thabo Mbeki has called for unity and a peaceful transition, noting that many African states face similar challenges.
The broader challenge for African states rests in the artificiality of their national borders, many of which were set as a result of colonial interventions by European states. Peoples were combined and divided by national boundaries that were convenient for European powers, but bore little resemblance to the lived realities of the people themselves. Consequently, historical rivals were often combined into a single state, while peoples with shared histories and identities were frequently divided into separate states. For several decades after independence, the solution was essentially to ignore the problem. In 1963, the Organization of African Unity formally endorsed the borders established by colonial authorities nearly 100 years earlier. Such a move was perhaps politically necessary. Rather than reopening old wounds and engaging in a divisive discussion of redrawing political boundaries, they chose to go with what was there. But that decision also left many artificial states intact, with populations that desired autonomy an independence. There may be, in other words, many other South Sudans waiting to declare their own independence in an ever fragmenting map of Africa.