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the borders and machinery of a colonial African states, but South Sudan proves that they do not have to inherit this outdated, post-colonial narrative.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?

These are not musings of the foolish or irresponsible. Africans are hungry for new political arrangements -- in the Congo, Nigeria, in Somalia, and what remains of Sudan. But there's a major barrier preventing Africans from creating political arrangements that might better serve them socially, economically, and culturally: Western nations. What Jeffrey Herbst, the president of Colgate and an important scholar on African politics, wrote ten years ago, in a paper on "rethinking African sovereignty," is even truer today. "It is likely that if the United States and other powers were to finally cast aside the old practices [of treating a sovereign African nation-state as sovereign forever] they would find many African countries eager to explore political arrangements that were not so directly tied to the boundaries established by the colonialists."

Secession might not always be the best form for these new arrangements. Perhaps some kind of association between areas bordering one another would do. Consider Eastern Congo, which is today one of the poorest, worst-run places in the world. How could independence make things better in a country dominated by war-lords, pillaging soldiers, awful governance, and relentless poverty? Well, to find the silver lining just look at a map. Eastern Congo, which is terribly distant from the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, covers a vast area with a favorable climate, rich natural resources, and motivated trading partners (albeit located to the east). The chief partner could well be Rwanda -- a relatively rapidly growing, resource-poor country -- which the people of Eastern Congo can easily reach through the border city of Goma. Rwanda, under President Paul Kagame, has turned Anglophone and forged extensive trade networks with Tanzania and Kenya, both with seaports, and with Uganda, which has a large domestic market. Rwanda also has joined the East African trade community (EAC), which generally means no duties or restrictions on movements of goods or people between these countries. By integrating economically with neighboring Rwanda, the vast resources and human initiative of Eastern Congo would be linked physically, socially, economically, and legally with East Africa, perhaps the most thriving, rapidly-growing economic block in sub-Saharan Africa.

And what of Somalia, a benighted nation stitched together out of three pieces -- bequeathed by two European powers -- only in 1960? Somalia is today effectively three nations anyway, two of which, Somaliland and Puntland, cannot receive international recognition. International recognition would open a flow of assistance to these countries, but more crucially, independence would remove the greatest risk of investing in or returning to Somaliland or Puntland: the possibility that somehow the U.S. or a misguided Europe will stitch a single Somalia back together no matter the cost in living standards to its people.

The best proof that the international community must revise its views on secession in Africa comes from a story of the birth of South Sudan. Of course, credit goes to the Southerners themselves, who first persisted in their decades-long war against the North and who then, after achieving a seemingly miraculous peace deal, lost their charismatic leader, John Garang, in a still-mysterious helicopter crash in Uganda in 2005.

Garang was South Sudan's Nelson Mandela. His death robbed his country-in-waiting of its leading political statesman. His successor, Salva Kiir, is a more conventional leader, with roots in South Sudan's long military struggle against Khartoum. Kiir never tried to fill Garang's shoes on the international stage, but showed admirable restraint in refusing to accept the flawed logic of the "humanitarian-interventionist" wing of the international community, which at times called for some kind of international force, or suspending the process leading to independence. Kiir never bough into the idea -- repeatedly floated by U.S. National Security Council staff and the International Crisis Group, that Bashir would use pre-emptive war to halt the process. While the Khartoum government of Omar Bashir repeatedly violated the South's borders and brutalized ethnic compatriots there, Kiir never accepted that any of these outrages should jeopardize the process of the South Sudan achieving independence.

For Kiir's wise restraint, the U.S. deserves considerable credit for brokering the peace deal that resulted in this new nation. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. negotiated a remarkable deal with Bashir: an end to the civil war and the chance for southerners to have their own nation. In January, southerners voted near-unanimously for independence. Ever since, groups who follow the various conflicts in Sudan -- Darfur especially -- have predicted the worst. To be sure, there's been violence in the run up to South Sudan's birth, but the magnitude has been very small relative to Sudan's bloody past. And the Obama administration wisely did nothing to alter the terms of the North-South settlement, even after Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court.

The conventional wisdom states that South Sudan marks the birth of a new nation. But, in real sense, two new nations were born Saturday: South Sudan and what is left of Sudan. The most important question of the moment may well be, What does the birth of South Sudan mean for the rest of Sudan? Khartoum is not a capital of a nation, but the imperial seat of crumbling empire. The country's remaining regions are restive, to put it politely. Is Darfur, the scene of one of the bloodiest civil wars in memory, a nation in the making? Could not the Nubians, in what is now the southern part of Sudan, seek their own nation as well?

To be sure, some aggrieved Africans would prefer to have their grievances met within current political frameworks. "From my experience," Pierre Englebert wrote me a year ago, "the majority of Kivutiens [in eastern Congo] do not seem to want an independent state. But I do agree with the idea that current borders and current states are tragic mistakes and the result of the embrace of colonial domination by some African elites. My guess is that new states must come from some internal political process. This process can only be set in motion by withdrawing the current recognition (and thus sovereignty) of African states."

With the birth of South Sudan, the process of Africans inventing and discovering their own political boundaries has finally begun, after some 50 years of waiting. I for one do not expect many years to pass before South Sudan becomes an invitation to independence for others.