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Meet the World’s Newest Nation

CAS African scholar on prospects after Sudan’s split


With the announcement on February 7 that nearly 99 percent of Southern Sudanese voted in favor of secession,
 the world's newest country was born. Photo by Flickr user Peter J. Bury

In July 2011 it becomes official: after nearly 99 percent of those voting in Southern Sudan’s referendum voted for secession, Africa’s largest nation will cleave in two and a new, yet unnamed nation will be born. Its results embraced by the government of besieged Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, the independence referendum, whose results were announced February 7, marked a jubilant turning point for a region torn by a 22-year civil war that has claimed two million lives. Early this week Southern Sudan’s vote for independence was recognized by President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging north and south to proceed briskly and efficiently to arrange the terms of the decision, which was born out of a 2005 peace agreement.

For perspective on the historic referendum, BU Today spoke with Africa scholar Timothy Longman, director of BU’s African Studies Center and a College of Arts & Sciences visiting associate professor of political science, who has worked with Southern Sudanese refugees in Kenya and Uganda.

BU Today: How did the referendum come about?
Longman: This was basically something that came out of the peace process. The north and south had been in conflict since 1983, and the 2005 resolution of that conflict, largely brokered by the United States, dictated a six-year trial period, with the south having a lot of autonomy, but remaining part of the Sudan. This referendum marked the end of that period.

Now that Southern Sudan has spoken, will the government in Khartoum stay out of the way?
The biggest fear was whether the north would accept the results or not. But it looks as though President Omar al-Bashir has used this as a way of gaining international support. The United States has a trade embargo against Sudan; he’s been indicted on genocide charges in the International Criminal Court. It looks like he’s trying to get in the good graces of the United States.

Will this work?
It probably will. They’ve been trying for a few years, with the exception of actions in Darfur, to court the West and take a position against terrorism. Sudan recently arrested Hassan al-Turabi, a leader of that nation’s Islamist movement. The United States has been really deeply committed to the resolution of the war between the north and the south. There certainly will be some reward for al-Bashir. We may not open full relations, but we are likely to lift the embargo.

What has the U.S. embargo cost the Sudan?
The cost of embargo has not been terribly substantial because it’s been fairly unilateral. France, China, and Russia have not respected the embargo, and we’ve tended to be on our own. We have no oil interests in the Sudan. We’re the only major country that’s talked about the violence and genocide in Darfur.

What challenges will the south face with independence?
There are some really serious challenges. One is that the south is very divided ethnically, and during the war there was fighting between southern militia groups. The largest ethnic group is the Dinka. Another is the Nuer. There has been some history of conflict between these groups, both cattle herders and farmers, and there are fears that the conflict could lead to violence.

The vote to secede wasn’t unanimous. Who in the south were likely opponents?
There are people who are concerned that after secession there’s a potential for violence within the Southern Sudan and violence in the north. Also, a minority of Southern Sudanese have converted to Islam (which prevails in the Arab north), and there are concerns of Muslims being scapegoated. For the most part the Dinka and Nuer are a mixture of animist and Christian faiths.

Who is the logical candidate to lead the new nation?
The person who was the logical leader, John Garang, died in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2005. Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the nation’s second civil war. Garang had pretty wide support, and a lot of people think the north killed him.

Will the split have an impact on neighboring nations?
The divide between Arab and African is a divide that runs through the continent, so there are some fears, particularly in Chad, which has conflict along these lines.

Even as the referendum results were announced, news accounts reported al-Bashir’s troops attacking Southern Sudanese civilians. Why is this still happening?
The continued attacks is one of the problems where the border between the north and the south lies. There is a population of nomadic herders who identify as Arab, affiliate with the north, have traditionally herded in the south, and feel particularly threatened now. They’re the ones involved in these attacks. They’re the same as the village raiders in Darfur, but may not have the authorities behind them.

Is al-Bashir likely to face trial on the genocide charges?
It’s possible that al-Bashir will negotiate charges away, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are human rights absolutists who say he should be accountable no matter what, but dropping the ICC charges in exchange for ending hostilities in Darfur might be a good thing.

Is there a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to Rwanda’s or South Africa’s, in Sudan’s future?
I don’t think any transitional justice is in the cards for Sudan. A few reasons: one, these incidents happened too long ago for accountability; also, it’s a little like what happened in East Timor, where the people who committed the atrocities were not in the country.

Will the new Southern Sudanese nation be a friend of the United States?
It is likely to be a natural ally to the United States. We have a lot of Southern Sudanese refugees in the United States, as well as a history of tension with north Sudan. With the southern regime being set up as a Christian nation bordering a Muslim nation we view as extremist, there’s probably some natural affinity. But the al-Bashir administration has tried hard to prove itself as an ally against terrorism. The irony is, Sudan offered Osama bin Laden to the United States in 1996, during the Clinton administration, and we turned them down.

What will be the foundation of Southern Sudan’s economy?
Much of the country is quite fertile; there’s great agricultural potential. But it also has oil fields, and it has to be worked out how the north and south are going to share oil revenues. The Chinese are the biggest investors in Sudanese oil. At the moment, though, the south is extraordinarily underdeveloped, with very few roads and the widespread destruction of war. It’s extremely aid-dependent. So there’s a lot of potential. Frankly, the oil is a mixed blessing because it can become a real engine of corruption. In Africa, countries with the most mineral reserves, like Congo and Nigeria, tend to be the most corrupt.

Is retribution likely against southerners in the north and northerners in the south?
A large part of the southern population is living in refugee camps in the north. The question is, will people be driven out of the north? There won’t be many going from the south to the north.

Would you care to speculate on the new country’s name?
Maybe they should have a contest on the web. Naming is very interesting in Africa. The name Sudan has a lot of baggage, with the south’s history of being colonized by the north and being a source of slaves for some time. I’d be surprised if they kept the name Sudan at all.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Meet the World’s Newest Nation

  • Abram Trosky on 02.10.2011 at 7:02 am

    "human rights absolutists"

    I value Prof Longman’s analysis but object to the ad hominem, “human rights absolutist” applied to those unwilling to capitulate to political exigency and let a man guilty of the death of thousands go free.

    While masquerading as a value itself–compromise–this is not an ethical position. If ethics is to means anything, it requires the universal respect for human rights, above petty bargaining and crass utilitarianism.

    This language undermines the mandate of the International Criminal Court and other bodies instituted to pursue global justice.

    I would remind the professor of a King quote in which absolutist may be substituted for extremist: “Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.”

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2011 at 11:30 pm

    “We have no oil interests in the Sudan. “?
    We’re the only major country that’s talked about the violence and genocide in Darfur.”?

    Come on! who believe this shit.

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