How New is the Southern Sudan?

It has been a while since I last posted but with the intensity of activity in Sudan and across the ME and North Africa I felt it time to reactivate this blog. Some amendments will need to be made to the profiles of the authors that contribute to this site and maybe the focus of the site may change somewhat to reflect some of the areas of interest in which I am now researching and writing, but this needs to be renegotiated with the remaining contributors. Anyway, watch this space for some changes but in the meantime here’s a brief piece on the emergence of the Southern Sudan.

How New is the Southern Sudan?

There is little doubt that in July of this year a new state will join the international system. This state will be greeted with much fanfare from western sponsors who have robustly supported a process of independence for the Southern Sudan. Before analysing some of the issues that might belie the euphoria surrounding the creation of this state, I’ll make a few preliminary comments that will demonstrate that I am no apologist for either the artificially constructed territories that Africa was saddled with at independence or the successive Khartoum governments that have largely been responsible for years of north-south conflict and national instability that followed the end of formal European colonialism in Africa.

The boundaries of modern African states, with a few exceptions, result from European rivalries and expansion in the late nineteenth century. Sudan is an excellent example of how this process unfolded. Kitchener’s victory of Omdurman in 1898 secured Sudan for Britain and more importantly ensured British control of Egypt and the hence the Suez Canal. In fact, for a number of key scholars, including historian M.W. Daly, author of the monumental two volume history of colonial Sudan , British interest in the Sudan was first and foremost determined by the influence that control of the Nile gave them over Egypt. This was equally true in 1956 when Sudan attained independence as it was in 1898 when Kitchener’s forces destroyed the Sudanese army and marched into Khartoum. Actually, most states in Africa (and for that matter in the Middle East and Asia) can be said to have been the result of nineteenth century imperial politics, and even if the imperial legacy is a distasteful subject for some people, there is no doubting the reality that the Sudanese dilemma has it roots in the way that the British, French, and Belgians carved up Africa.

So, the vast majority of states in Africa are artificial. They were born not of organic state and nation- building such as was the case in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and neither were they extensions of those European societies in the way that settler societies such as Australia and Canada were. Rather, the boundaries were drawn by European politicians, merchants, explorers and missionaries without any input from the people who would become Sudanese, Kenyans, Nigerians, Angolans, etc. Overcoming this legacy requires, as it would seem, a redrawing of the map of Africa to allow for political units to emerge represented the culture, geography, history, and economic efficiencies that were all ignored by colonialism. In this way, it seems, that the separation of southern Sudan is a necessary step in this process of overcoming the territorial problems created by colonialism. Unfortunately, the problem is not so easily solved. Why?

Firstly, the southern Sudan is as artificial a construct as the larger territory we all knew as the Sudan. The South Sudan is a conglomerate of a number of independent political groups which were only united by their opposition to Khartoum. That the common enemy is now external, and somewhat removed from the internal politics of the southern Sudan will turn the spotlight back on the different actors and interests that make up the SPLM. Already, there have been signs that the SPLM leadership is divided on the fundamentals of the new state. The last time this occurred was in the 1990s and the result was a protracted and bloody inter-party struggle which only worked to Khartoum’s benefit. Khartoum, once again, will be hoping that it will be able to manipulate the internal divisions within the SPLM to its own advantage in the negotiations over key economic and political issues which still need to take place before any separation is formalised. The tensions within the SPLM remain one of the major challenges that the southern Sudan faces and may prove more dangerous than any of the issues that remain to be settled with the northern Sudan. The SPLM’s military wing, the Southern People’s Liberation Army or SPLA remains heavily armed with many of the fighters still in control of their weapons and answerable, not to the civilian administration that is formed, but to their military commanders. There is a possibility for these soldiers to resist unpopular political decisions including what will be a tricky process of decommissioning and disarming the SPLA. Also, there is the issue of military commanders relinquishing their authority to the civilian administration resulting in these war time commanders losing control of the resources from which their positions of power are based. At both these levels, the leaders of the southern Sudan will have to tread lightly or face a potential uprising or uprisings of their own making.

The disunity of the SPLM is only really a reflection of the disunity of the southern Sudan more broadly. What will become the sovereign state of the Southern Sudan will be as diverse as any other African country with numerous ethnic groups that have had long histories of independence and a history of a colonial system of administration that institutionalised ethnic differences and political separation. Fifty-five years of independence has done little to overcome this history and construct some sense of national unity. This means that in many ways the newest African state will share some of the fundamental weaknesses of many of its neighbours. The fear expressed by some in the region is that the splitting of the Sudan into two separate states will only result in two weak and failed states in the region rather than one. Whether this occurs or not is uncertain, but for the moment, there is still time for a certain optimism that the Southern Sudan can overcome the legacies of the past and fashion a brighter future.


Noah Bassil

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