There are between 192-204 independent countries in the world, and on Saturday another one was added to that list: South Sudan. Of all the foreign dignitaries and guests that participated in the celebration that began shortly after midnight, the most curious was perhaps President Bashir of “North” Sudan, the very man who has brutally intimidated and repressed the population in the South for decades and who was recently accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in Hague. One could certainly ask what went through his mind as he stood on the podium next to South Sudan’s new president, Salva Kiir, who had symbolically dressed for the occasion in Western cowboy attire (above). What were some of the calculations that led General Omar el Bashir to accept the results of the referendum and even join in the festivities?
The moment in the sun for South Sudan provides an excellent opportunity for a discussion about some of those calculations and how they may shape the future relations between “North” and South Sudan. It also invites a discussion about the concept of secession, its causes and consequences. Lets begin with the latter.
In international relations, the term secession means when a geographical region of a country separates itself politically and administratively from the larger country that it has been a part of. In most cases of recent successful secessions, including East Timor, and South Sudan, the geographic region that successfully seceded was ethnically, culturally, and even historically distinct from the rest of the country. In South Sudan, while there are clear ethnic divisions between the North and the South, different political realities between the regions also stems from the country’s colonial legacy, where Britain ruled the northern and southern regions separately, creating distinct political histories in the two parts even before Sudan became an independent state in 1956.
Thus, in order to understand the underlying causes for secession, it is important to point out that ethnic differences per se do not necessarily lead to the separation of a country into separate geographic and political entities. There is a multiplicity of issues and complex dynamics, both historic and contemporary, that may lead a population in a distinct part of a country to begin to ask for political independence. While some scholars on separatism and secession attribute such developments to economic factors (what is sometimes in the literature referred to as “opportunity costs”), others point out that economics may play less of a role in areas where ethnic and language differences serve as the main mobilization force for the people involved. This is further compounded by historic political and/or cultural discrimination that cements ethnic and racial differences and exposes historic enmities. A few administrative maps of Sudan can serve to demonstrate this point. The one on the left shows the different ethnic groups in Sudan and their configuration across the entire territory.
The following images show regional differences across Sudan (both north and south) for some important political and humanitarian indices, including water and sanitation conditions, literacy/education and infant mortality rates:
The clear contrast between Northern and Southern Sudan can clearly be traced back to deliberate
administrative and political decisions on the part of the Khartoum government, which favored the Arabic-speaking north over the Bantu regions in the south. However, it could also be argued that the stark differences are the result of a civil war that has raged almost uninterrupted since Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956. That would also explain why the western region of Darfur stands out in underdevelopment compared to the rest of the north. While the evidence in Sudan as to the exact causes for the growing secessionist aspirations is complex and inconclusive, it is clear that separatism and secession develop over time, usually as a result of political and economic practices that enhance ethnic and cultural identities between regions. Ethnicity then becomes the mobilizing force around which populations converge.
Now to the first topic of discussion, President Bashir’s calculations and the future of the new country. Why would president Bashir show up to celebrate the independence of a people that he has punished and repressed since 1989 in order to prevent such a development? To put it simply, had we replaced Bashir’s stern face with that of uncle Scrooge with dollar signs, the American symbolism would have been complete:
Omar el Bashir finds himself in a dilemma and had to make a simple cost-benefit calculation. Already having lost the support of the international community and at risk of being arrested if he travels abroad, Bashir realized the inevitable. He decided to “support” the referendum and the results not because he had a change of heart but because of two important considerations: the potential loss of his own personal power, and the major revenue to the northern part of Sudan, the oil fields that straddle the new border between the two states. The peace accord envisions the revenues from oil to be shared between Sudan and South Sudan but trouble is already brewing, and this is where the two discussions about Bashir’s calculations and the reality of secession finally meet. Secession is rarely ever clean, especially in parts of the world where civil war has left many displaced. There are two regions in particular where the referendum was suspended and where no agreement has been made, and where the casualties from renewed fighting between rebels and government forces are mounting. Those two regions are where most of the major oil reserves are found: Abyei and South Kordofan.
While the new country of South Sudan is a welcome development for the impoverished Christian and Animist populations in the South, the northern oil-rich regions are still contested, and are likely to re-surface in the news very soon if the international community does not deal with it quickly and decisively. More importantly, the next flare-up will not be a war between government forces and rebels, but between the armies of two sovereign states (albeit one very weak), changing the dynamics decisively both in terms of tactics used by the parties but also in terms of options available for the international community. But that will have to be a later discussion…