11 February 2011
Sudan: Peace Through Changing Borders
by Gwynne Dyer
“The people of South Sudan, for the first time since 1898, are going to determine their own future,” declared Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, southern Sudan’s information minister, before last month’s referendum on the region’s independence. “In fact, it will be the last-born state on this continent of Africa.” If he meant that no more African countries will split up, however, he was probably wrong.
The referendum was a resounding success from the southern point of view. It’s natural to be suspicious of referendums that produce “yes” votes of almost 99 percent, but in this case it was a genuine expression of southern opinion. The new state will become independent on 9 July, and so far it looks like the erstwhile government of undivided Sudan, based in Khartoum, will accept the outcome peacefully.
Early last month, speaking in the southern capital Juba, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir said: “I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.” After decades of war between the Muslim, Arabic-speaking north and the very different south, where most people speak local languages and are Christian, division makes sense. But it also creates a precedent.
That font of wisdom on geopolitical affairs, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafy, warned a meeting of African and Arab leaders last October that southern Sudan’s independence would spread like a “disease…to all of Africa…With this precedent, investors will be frightened to invest in Africa.” But the African Union has blessed the split, while emphasising that this is a special situation and very much an exception.
It is a very special situation. About two million people have been killed in Sudan’s 43 years of civil war, the great majority of them southerners. As a result of the endless fighting, southern Sudan is one of the least developed regions in the world: the same size as France, it only has 60 km. (40 miles) of paved road. The southerners deserve their independence – but the implications are vast.
The old Organisation of African Unity, the African Union’s predecessor, had a rule that no border inherited from the colonial era could be changed. To allow frontiers to change in order to regroup people according to their ethnic, linguistic or religious identities would just open the door to endless war. For a long time, it didn’t happen.
The first partial break from the policy was the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, after many years of civil war, but that exception was explained on the grounds that Eritrea had been ruled as a separate country by the Italians. This time, however, is different.
The African Union cannot justify the division of Sudan on the grounds that the south was separate under British colonial rule; it wasn’t. This is just a pragmatic decision to divide a country because the cost in blood and treasure of keeping it united has grown too high.
If it’s okay to split up Sudan, what’s to stop other secessionist groups from launching wars of independence, knowing that if enough people are killed they will probably get their way in the end? How about Nigeria? The oil-rich southeastern region (Biafra) has tried that once already. The Congo? There was once a vicious war, backed by Western mining interests, for the independence of the province of Katanga.
The rot has already spread beyond Africa. The decision in 2008 by the NATO countries and some others to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which was still legally a province of Serbia, created a similar precedent in Europe. In fact, it is an even more sweeping precedent, because the Serbian government, unlike the Sudanese, did not assent to the separation.
If Kosovo’s independence can be recognised without Serbia’s agreement, why can’t Turkish-majority northern Cyprus become legally independent without the permission of the Greek Cypriot-dominated government in Nicosia? Why can’t the breakaway bits of Georgia be recognised as independent states? Why can’t there be an independent Kurdish state?
Why not hold the long-promised, long-denied plebiscite in divided Kashmir, and let the local people decide, district by district, whether they want to be part of Pakistan, or part of India, or independent? Why can’t the western half of New Guinea separate peacefully from Indonesia? For that matter, why can’t Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang) hold referendums on independence from China?
Good questions. Most of these situations have involved bloodshed in the past, and much of it continues in the present. The sum of human happiness would probably be increased if these ethnically distinct areas got to choose their own futures, and it is not necessarily true that changing the borders would be a bloodier business than keeping them frozen in place.
Conflict is still possible between Sudan and South Sudan, especially over the sharing of the oil revenue. Most of the oil is in the south, but the pipelines take it out through the north. So far, however, both sides are behaving in a very grown-up way, and together they are an advertisement for the virtues of letting borders change.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The old…high”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.