After South Sudan: The Case to Keep Dividing Africa

Sudan has been successfully split into two independent countries. Here's why more African nations should divide, secede, splinter, or otherwise scramble the old colonial borders.

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Officials look at the newly unveiled map of Sudan after separation / Reuters

On Saturday, South Sudan was finally born. Rather than a moment of existential peril, or an invitation to sub-regional instability, the birth of this new African nation offers a moment of celebration for the persistence of African commitment to self-determination and dignity. This is a moment to consider an alternative reading of African affairs, one that has for some 50 years co-existed alongside the conventional narrative. That long-accepted narrative says that political violence in Africa is always a tragedy and that outsiders invariably must try to reduce this violence no matter the cost in the realization of legitimate political aspirations of Africans. It also says that Africans and their ancestors have for centuries only known feudal dominance, colonial exploitation at European hands, and then finally abuse and abandonment on the part of their own elites. These Africans inherited the borders and machinery of a colonial African states, but South Sudan proves that they do not have to inherit this outdated, post-colonial narrative.

The birth of South Sudan is a momentous invitation not to despair over the travails that the people of this new landlocked and impoverished nation surely will experience, but to celebrate another step toward closing what Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Claremont College, has called "Africa's secessionist deficit." And the deficit in question refers to living standards and development generally. Englebert found, in one of the most exciting recent academic projects in academic African studies, that the unwillingness to cut African nations down in size (in other words, to let new nations form) has "contributed to its underdevelopment."

The idea that Africa suffers from too few secessionist campaigns, too few attempts to carve a few large nations into many smaller ones, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. One of the truisms of African politics is that traditional borders, even when bequeathed by colonizers without the least sympathy for African political justice, ought to be respected. The cult of colonial borders has been a cornerstone not only of diplomacy between African nations but of the assistance programs of foreign governments and multinational non-governmental organizations. This is especially true for the U.S. and Europe, which spend billions on reconstructing failed states such as the Congo. But letting these countries reform into smaller nations might actually reduce conflict, increase economic growth, and cost less in foreign aid. That, by the way, is Englebert's argument in a nutshell in his paper, "Let's Stick Together: Understanding Africa's Secessionist Deficit," published in African Affairs in July 2005.

To be sure, successful breaches have occurred before in the defense of colonial borders. Eritrea managed to escape from Ethiopia after a brutal war of independence waged from 1961 to 1991, though revealingly this new country's borders were coincident with a short-lived Italian colonial enclave. More typically, secessionist campaigns have failed miserably, and proved costly in human life. The desperate attempt by Nigeria's Igbo ethnic group to form a nation-state in "south south" Nigeria in the late 1960s costs the lives of many, including, in 1970, my wife's older brother, one of many infants to die soon after birth in the chaos and deprivation of the Biafran war. In the Congo, Cameroon, and elsewhere, breakaway movements have petered out, exhausted by a lack of international support and, most cruelly, a failure of African imagination.

In the birth of South Sudan, this postmodern idea has finally taken root on African soil. Here is a new nation, without precedent, either in colonial times or traditional pre-colonial times. South Sudan is a geographically determined nation that shares borders with two nations, Congo and Uganda, who stand ready to become natural trading partners. Whether South Sudan becomes an anomaly or a harbinger remains to be seen. In the global conversation about Africa, there are few greater taboos than to cheer for political fragmentation and the rise of new nations. The sub-Saharan, of course, is cursed by the entrenched belief that its nation-states are weak and failing (Alex Perry of Time magazine rudely greeted South Sudan, calling it a "pre-failed" state). Yet many observers, such as Jeffrey Herbst, author of the classic 2000 study, "States and Power in Africa," have argued that African nations are too large and would benefit, in some strategic cases, from break-up.

The logic of division has worked in Europe. Who really considers Belgium for example, to be too small? (If anything, that country's political problems come from being too big, and it is many ways already divided in two.) Or Finland, which is home to far fewer Finnish speakers than there are Igbo speakers living in an area of Nigeria my wife sometimes calls "Igboland." And, besides, why should size be any objection in a world that cheered the birth of Slovenia and Slovakia? Did not the independence of tiny Kosovo receive the full measure of support from the very Western nations who worry that Africa might someday fracture into a hundred nations or more?

In a world where this is a Finland, cannot Sudan's region of Darfur, which is as large France, be a nation? Or the perilous region of Sudan that sits above the South and is home to the much-aggrieved Nubian people? Or could not northern Nigerian, with its 60 million Muslims and its vast farm lands, not be in its own nation? Or Casamance, a part of Senegal split from its mother ship by the Gambia? And might even the continual crisis in Somalia become somehow more understandable, more tolerable, if the international community would recognize as nation-states the two breakaway Somali states (Somaliland and Puntland), which, unlike the region dominated by Mogadishu, are performing relatively well economically and socially?

Presented by

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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