Sudan: prospect and lesson

The forthcoming referendum on independence in south Sudan could lead to the break-up of Africa’s biggest country. But if Sudan has failed as a unitary state its end carries dangers, says Richard Cockett.
Richard Cockett
15 September 2010

Sudan, Africa’s largest country by land-mass, is about to disappear. Or rather, to put it less dramatically, in all likelihood the country will soon cease to exist in its present form. In a referendum due in January 2011, the 8 million or so citizens of south Sudan are expected to vote for secession from the north, and to found their own state. The rump of the country, including the western region of Darfur, will remain as Sudan. The southern Sudanese have yet to decided the name of their territory; but whatever they choose, it seems as if Africa will get its first new country since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

However, just as in the case of Eritrea, for every person who relishes the prospect of a freshly-minted country, there is another who finds the whole idea extremely worrying.

Many sympathetic foreigners, especially in America, admire the determination with which the mainly Christian and animist southern Sudanese have fought for their own country against the mainly Arab and Islamist regimes in Khartoum. They hope that the final break-up of Sudan will put an end to a bloody civil war that raged from the very beginning of independence in 1956 and ended only in 2005. The war cost about 2 million lives, made about 6m more homeless, and destabilised much of east Africa.  

Yet there are many others, principally Africans, who fear the consequences of a new country. Surely, they argue, it will set a dangerous precedent for aspiring breakaway nations in Africa - from Somaliland to the Western Sahara, from northern Nigeria to eastern DR Congo. Furthermore, won’t southern Sudan be too weak to stand on its own feet? The region was bombed flat before a peace agreement was signed with the north in 2005, and since then has barely progressed despite the injection of massive amounts of aid money and even more oil money. This is a pre-failed state, the argument goes, bound to collapse when it is separated from a north Sudan that has at least been the source of much of the south’s trade and income over the years.

In fact, both sides are right; there is both much to celebrate and much to worry about. Even more, there is an awful lot to learn from the failure of Sudan as a unitary state. Those who have resisted the country’s fragmentation are wont to argue that Sudan is a one-off, an exception, and so has nothing to teach anyone about the future political complexion of the continent. But this is wrong. Indeed, to bury Sudan in the sands like this is to deny the obvious: that the demise of the country will provoke intense debate, lobbying and probably unrest. Better to have an open and honest discussion now than to pretend that nothing of any significance has happened (see Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State [Yale University Press, 2010]).

The costs of disunity

For a start, the break-up of Sudan will raise anew the old question of whether such big, hugely diverse countries, artificial concoctions put together by European rulers to suit their own needs rather than those of local Africans can really survive - or indeed deserve to survive. Even under British colonial rule, what was then called the Equatorial region of Sudan (now the south) was administered entirely separately from the north.

The two pieces were stitched together only ten years before independence, to be ruled from Khartoum – and the British then presumed that they could just hand this tidy arrangement on to the new Muslim rulers in Khartoum. It was scarcely surprising that the southerners, having barely even been ruled from Khartoum, should have resented this imposed rule by unknown men of a different religion and culture whom they knew almost nothing about. The southern rebellion broke out even before independence, in 1955.

Was it worth 2m lives and fifty-odd years of war to prove that this was unworkable from the start? Probably not. Is it not time, therefore, to revisit Somalia for instance, where the bit that does work - Somaliland, in the north - has been chafing against its inclusion in Somalia for years? Would eastern Congo, so many hundreds of miles from the Congolese capital Kinshasa, be better off in the East African Community? What about Ethiopia’s ethnic Somalis, mainly in the Ogaden - would they not be better off in Somalia?

There are many such examples: the main point is that colonial boundaries should not be sacrosanct, as the African Union often seems to suggest.

Yet before every region aspiring to statehood presses its demand for a new flag and currency, the prospective breakaway of southern Sudan also suggests the very grave dangers of such a move.

There will be many calls, for example, for Darfur to follow the south out of Sudan altogether. Some of the region’s “rebel” commanders have already suggested this. Yet whereas it is just possible to imagine how the south might survive (and maybe even prosper) as an independent country, it is impossible to imagine how Darfur would. The south has abundant agricultural land, oil and relatively good commercial links to the sea. Darfur is parched, and landlocked, and about the half the population are refugees or internally-displaced people (IDPs). There might be oil there - or not. To encourage nationalist aspirations in Darfur would be to invite disaster for the Darfuris themselves. True, Darfur - like the south - was a late add-on to Britain’s artificial concoction of Sudan, but in its case romantic notions of a return to the Darfuri sultanate should not trump common sense.

The break-up of Sudan also invites reflections on how the long civil war and the country’s disintegration might have been avoided in the first place. Here, the onus lies squarely on the shoulders of Khartoum’s politicians. For decade after decade, with the brief exception of Jaafar Nimeiri's presidency in the 1970s, Khartoum’s northern politicians made no attempt to entice the southerners (or the Darfuris) into sharing in the rule and wealth of the country; rule from the capital was to be on their own terms only, especially when it came to the imposition of sharia law in the south.

The contrast with Nigeria is instructive. The west African giant, composed of thirty-six states, came through the horrors of the Biafra war and responded by adapting its internal structures in a way that has helped preserve its unity. Nigeria has manifold problems but it has succeeded in holding itself together by facing the reality of its internal diversity. It can be done. Whether it is too late for Sudan to learn a lesson from its fellow African giant remains to be seen.    

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