Nations, States, and the Independence of South Sudan

Celebrations marked the birth of South Sudan in Juba, the new country's capital.

South Sudan became an independent state today, six months after its people voted in a referendum to break away from Sudan and form their own country. You can watch videos of the festivities here.  The north and the south have fought two civil wars in Sudan, with the latest (ended by a peace agreement in 2005) claiming over two million lives. The international recognition of South Sudan will confer upon its government juridical (legal) sovereignty–the recognized right to rule within a defined territory without external interference. But empirical (actual) sovereignty is something different–the government’s ability to control its territory and maintain independence from outside interference.  Often a government possesses juridical but not empirical sovereignty (consider Pakistan’s inability to control its tribal areas) or empirical sovereignty without international recognition (Taiwan).  It appears that South Sudan may have a shot at both types of sovereignty, although there remain internal ethnic divides and unresolved disputes with Sudan over the south’s oil resources and territorial boundaries in the regions of Abyei and South Kordofan that could tempt the north to intervene and undermine South Sudan’s sovereignty.

With the independence of South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan, both countries become closer to meeting the ideal of a “nation-state” than they were before.  The north is predominantly Arab and Muslim, whereas the south is black, Christian, and Animist.  Reflecting the sentiment of many in South Sudan, a man celebrating the country’s birth carried a hand-painted sign that read “From today our identity is southern and African, not Arabic and Muslim.” Political scientists use the term nation to describe a group of people who have a common identity.  Usually this group shares a history and such characteristics as culture, religion, and language, but the common identity–a sense of “we-ness”–is the most important attribute.  In contrast, the term state refers to a political entity (a government) that controls a defined territory and population.  Many states are actually multinational (Sudan before the south broke away would definitely qualify), and frequently nations are split between several states.  This is particularly common in Africa, where imperial powers created boundaries based on their colonial interests rather than the realities of where ethnic and tribal groups lived.  Nation-states only exist where the nation and the state coincide (examples would include Japan and Egypt), and these are the exception rather than the rule worldwide.  Of course, a mismatch between political boundaries and ethnic or cultural boundaries is a frequent cause of conflict.  In the case of Sudan, the Arab and Muslim north’s political and economic domination of the south reinforced the these identity boundaries and helped to produce today’s new political and territorial boundaries. Financial Times blogger Gideon Rachman suggests that this redrawing of boundaries could even be the wave of the future:

“A peaceful partition would also obviously have implications for the rest of Africa. It is a commonplace that many of the borders inherited from the colonial era make little sense. But there is understandable anxiety about the potential for conflict, if African borders start being withdrawn. If the division of Sudan demonstrates that this can be more or less peacefully, it may not be that long before the world has 200 states.”

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2 responses to “Nations, States, and the Independence of South Sudan

  1. Pingback: Recognizing Libya’s Rebels | World Politics News Review

  2. Pingback: State Sovereignty, Supranationalism, and the EU’s Threat Against Hungary | World Politics News Review

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