The current waves of both popular protest and revolution sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa are a fascinating and deeply important phase in regional politics and development and rightly merit the global media focus and analysis they are receiving. Events unfolding in a country just to the south of Egypt, however, are receiving far less mainstream attention and yet also represents a crucial stage in the evolution of African politics.
Following a week long referendum held from the 9th to the 15th of January, voters in South Sudan overwhelmingly opted to secede from the north of the country and stand independent. The world’s newest country is expected to formally declare independence on the 9th of July of this year as ‘The Republic of South Sudan’ and will become the 193rd UN member state. There was little doubt over the outcome of the referendum, guaranteed by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended 21 years of civil war between the two regions. Indeed, an incredible 98.8% of the 3.9 million registered voters opted for secession, an outcome that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has accepted and pledged to respect.
The importance of the secession vote stems from both the origins and foundation of Sudan as a country and how it has represented an exemplar of the negative legacy of colonialism. Independence corrects a disastrous and arbitrary attempt at nation building and is a step towards greater African stability by splitting the vast state into two more coherent countries.
Formerly a British colonial possession in view of the critical importance of the Nile River, the territory making up Sudan was home to a wide and diverse range of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups often with little in the way of commonality, especially in a country around a quarter of the size of the United States. Broadly speaking the North is ethnically Arab and religiously Muslim, whilst the South is ethnically Black and religiously Christian or Animist (as well as other local religions).
The logic of departing colonial powers was frequently arbitrary (such as divides along lines of latitude as seen in Korea or Vietnam, with no consideration of social divides or communities) and such was the case in Sudan, with independence in 1956 quickly leading to the first of two civil wars as mistrust and resentment between the two regions and concerns of future marginalisation spiralled into conflict. The 2005 CPA was the last in a long line of attempts at international mediation of the conflicts that have left millions of people dead, caused widespread destruction and displaced thousands.
The new country faces a number of severe challenges, many of which stem from the utter lack of funding provided to the South by the government in Khartoum. Continuing tribal rivalries, corruption, measurements of public health such as infant mortality and life expectancy, and the severe lack of development or infrastructure across the region are just some of the problems. For example, there is an estimated 62 miles of paved road in an area the size of France, making effective governance and communication extremely difficult. Education is another pressing concern – illiteracy is so widespread that the ballot cards used in the referendum were forced to use images of two hands clasped (unity) or one hand alone (secession) to display the options to voters.
Despite these challenges, there are promising signs. Public support for independence is clearly high and the declaration saw euphoric celebrations in the capital, Juba. The common sentiment is that development and progress were only possible once they had secured the independent future of the South. This optimism and unity was neatly demonstrated with the ‘X Factor’ style contest recently held to decide on a new national anthem. This support will be important to see through needed reform and nation building. There are also signs of budding enterprise and growth, with those who have fled both to elsewhere regionally and globally returning home. South Sudan also has large reserves of oil as a potential source of revenue, although at present the pipeline infrastructure runs through the north to the Red Sea and agreements over revenue sharing will need signing.
South Sudanese independence will act as an important test for whether an underdeveloped state can stand alone once it has broken free from the lingering frameworks of colonial administration. The popular support that exists must be built on and helped with international assistance to act as strong example of right to self-determination forming the basis of a successful new nation.