Reflections on South Sudan’s independence

Whatever dangers lie ahead, and they are legion, the emergence of an independent South Sudan is cause for celebration.
Eskinder Nega
12 July 2011

If it was up to Egypt’s leaders there would have been no independent country called Sudan. Briefly, in the mid-nineteenth century, Egypt and present day Sudan were indeed one under the wildly ambitious and much romanticized Albanian Khedive, Ismail the Magnificent. But Victorian Britain, the premier world power in the nineteenth century, and the country to which a financially bankrupt and politically exhausted Egypt was to succumb in the late nineteenth century, doggedly insisted on a separation.

Northern Sudan and Egypt have shared a common past for long stretches before the ascendance of Islam. But whereas Arab conquerors succeeded in much of Egypt, they were somehow unable to make it to the southern peripheries and subjugate Nubia, as the region was then known. And what is now a large part of north Sudan and south Egypt effectively became independent for the next 700 years, until the beginning of the ninetieth century when Egyptians, nominally under the Ottomans but effectively sovereign, began to push southwards. 

Ismail the Magnificent dreamt of uniting the Nile valley under direct Egyptian control. He thus pushed beyond historical Nubia to seize new territories in the south, where he faced no serious opposition and succeeded, and the east, where an impenetrable Ethiopian resistance, under King Yohannes, triggered not only his downfall but ultimately led to the collapse of Egyptian independence, too.

The British inherited the new lands in south Sudan when they formally occupied Egypt in 1882. What they found were an assortment of 200 disparate Nilotic ethnicities who had nothing in common with the Arabized, Islamized north. In due course they decided to administer them separately; and for thirty years extraordinarily prohibited the movement of peoples between the two regions to preempt southern assimilation. When it was time for the British to leave in the mid 1950s the two peoples were more than ever strangers to each other.

The prospect of decolonization triggered civil war in Sudan in 1955, a year before independence. Southerners modestly demanded limited autonomy but northerners insisted on absorption and integration. This was the 50s, well before ‘multiculturalism’ went mainstream in subsequent decades. The war, Sudan’s first civil war, lasted until1972. An uneasy but much welcomed ten year lull of hostilities then ensued, courtesy of a peace treaty brokered in Addis Ababa; only to be cut short in 1983 when Islamic law was forcibly imposed on the south.

Sudan’s second civil war lasted much longer than the first; twenty one years this time. The consequences were literally cataclysmic. Though the southern populace has never peaked above the 10 million mark, around 2.5 million died and 5 million more were to be displaced in two decades of mayhem. For each combatant who died in conflict, more than 20 civilians were either deliberately slaughtered or were caught in cross-fire. Every southern household was accosted one way or the other. The US Government has classified this episode as genocide.

By the time a second peace agreement was signed in 2005, independence for the south, sooner or later, was a foregone conclusion. No other outcome could conceivably be acceptable to the now highly traumatized southerners. To their credit, and much to the relief of the international community, even northerners were able to acknowledge this much.

And so the big day has finally come. South Sudan will join the international community on Saturday, July 11, 2011. But while the outcome of the war is welcomed all over Africa there will nonetheless be few overt celebrations.  Many African governments dread the specter of revived secessionist ambitions across the continent. With the independence of South Sudan, the bedrock of the post-independence African consensus and the inviolability of colonial-era borders has been shattered. Further changes are now plausible. In this sense, a new era has begun in Africa. Secessionist sentiment in Darfur, where a ferocious insurgency has cost the lives of half a million people and displaced millions more, will most probably be reinforced. Neither the government in Khartoum nor the international community will be in a position to dissuade calls for a referendum like the one held in south Sudan. And it will be harder to ignore Somaliland and Western Sahara.

85% of Sudan’s oil comes from South Sudan. But the revenue is being split equally with the north, which controls the pipeline that delivers it to the international market. This will no doubt be challenged in the near future; a shorter pipeline to the Kenyan coast has already been proposed. The geopolitical significance of the north will inevitably shrink while that of the south is set to rise. Expect to see more and more Chinese in South Sudan over the coming years.

Westerners are hardly in a position to compete. But the overseas consortium, Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, that control the oil in the south is not controlled by the Chinese as has been widely reported. Their share stands at only 40%. The remainder is split between Malaysians, 30%, and Indians, 25%. This will be a difficult team to beat in the energy sector.

There is a question to which no politician or pundit has yet offered a convincing answer: Will an independent South Sudan be stable? Dispute over border demarcation between north and south Sudan has already entailed the need to deploy UN mandated Ethiopian peacekeepers in Abyei, a contested oil rich area. The statuses of northern controlled South Kurdufan and Blue Nile regions, areas much larger than Abeiy and claimed by both sides, are pending an outcome of a promised referendum. Now that South Sudan is finally free, however, the international community may very well look the other way if the north decides not to honour its promise. But there will be domestic pressure on the South Sudanese government not to abandon their kin in the north. 

No less menacing is the rivalry between Dinkas, South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, and Nuers, the second largest, which threatens the emergence of a pluralistic constitutional democracy. Both sides are heavily armed and remain susceptible to external manipulation, not least by the northern Sudanese. The CIA has warned that “mass killing or genocide” will take place by 2015. There is also the bona fide danger of proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And rampant corruption is seriously undermining the legitimacy of the new state.

But whatever dangers lie ahead, the emergence of an independent South Sudan is cause for celebration. A people longed for freedom, fought for it against the odds, and finally triumphed. Here is history marching forward. Here is freedom overcoming tyranny. Here is David slaying Goliath. Here is exemplified the potential in all of us to do great things. Here is hope for humanity.

Welcome South Sudan. God bless. 

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