Will Sudan referendum inspire secessionists elsewhere in Africa?

New countries borne of partitions and border changes are not common, but will partial autonomy in Somaliland lead to secession now that South Sudan provides an example?

By , Guest blogger

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    South Sudanese children dressed in their Sunday best, who returned to the South by barges on the Nile river, sit amidst their belongings in Juba's port on Jan. 11. About four million Southern Sudanese voters began casting their ballots Sunday in a weeklong referendum on independence that is expected to split Africa's largest nation in two.
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Yesterday the BBC invited readers to a discussion on Facebook about the potential impact of South Sudanese secession on political configurations in Africa:

If South Sudan gets independence, will it encourage splits in other African countries? A number of voices are suggesting that could happen as the vote takes place in the South. Could Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Congo, Angola and others break up too? Colonel Gaddafi described a divided Sudan as “the beginning of the crack in Africa’s map” … Would that be a good or bad thing for the continent?

From what I know, border changes and the partition of nations occur relatively rarely. In Africa, you have Eritrean independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, but beyond that I am struggling to find an example of a country on the continent seceding from or joining another since the independence era (see Wikipedia’s list of border changes in Africa since World War I). So I think that South Sudan’s secession may inspire hope among secessionists elsewhere, but I do not think it will touch off a domino effect of splits.

There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree of stability than other regions of Somalia. Recently Somaliland successfully transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another, reinforcing democratic credentials that outshine those of many independent African nations. As crisis continues in southern and central Somalia, moreover, the US and other Western powers are showing greater willingness to consider recognizing Somaliland or at least treating it, de facto, as its own nation.

Recommended: Five reasons to care about the Sudan - South Sudan conflict

Interestingly, given this discussion about South Sudan and Somaliland, The Economist recently interviewed Somaliland’s new president, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, and Somaliland’s foreign minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Omar, on the subject. The interview is worth reading in full, but here is one key quote:

Baobab: What are the implications of the referendum in South Sudan for Somaliland’s quest for recognition?

AS: If the international community accepts South Sudan’s independence, that opens the door for us as well. It would mean that the principle that African borders should remain where they were at the time of independence would change. It means that If Southern Sudan can go their way, that should open the door for Somaliland’s independence as well and that the international position that Somaliland not be recognised separate from Somalia has changed.

What do you think? Is recognition for Somaliland in sight?

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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