Sudan after the referendum: a test case for Africa

The largest country in Africa was also a microcosm for the continent's many challenges. Will a newly independent South Sudan lead the way?

In itself, the vote to create a new country in South Sudan is reason enough for celebration: a peaceful referendum for independence after Africa’s longest civil war.

President Obama called the referendum’s near-unanimous results, announced Monday, “inspiring” and said the United States would recognize South Sudan’s independence formally in July. Millions of voters deciding “their own future” have marked “another step forward in Africa’s long journey toward justice and democracy,” he said.

More than the South Sudanese hope so. All of Africa is watching this experiment, because predivided Sudan, the largest country on the continent, is also a microcosm of much of what ails it.

In Sudan, as elsewhere in Africa, borders determined during colonial times threw together different religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Yet the 50-plus nations of the Organization of African Unity – the precursor to today’s African Union (AU) – largely opposed redrawing colonial borders for fear that would spark wars of succession.

And yet devastating civil wars have occurred anyway. Over two decades, Sudan’s North-South war cost about 2 million lives. That’s why the AU now blesses the referendum, even though the successful vote may well inspire secessionists in Nigeria, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The flip side, though, is that more regional autonomy – if not outright independence – could reduce conflict in many of these countries.

Sudan also has the blessing/curse of natural resources – in this case, oil. With independence, the oil resides with the South but must still flow through North Sudan to markets. Will negotiations between the North and South over the next months produce a workable sharing of revenues?

And if so, will that money go to local development – such as agriculture – that improves people’s lives? Or will it be siphoned off by patronage, corruption, and security forces? That’s just what many Nigerians, who go to the polls in April, complain about.

As South Sudan moves toward independence, foreign players from China to the United States will try to exert influence – an involvement that, depending, can benefit or hurt countries in Africa.

The successful referendum reflects Africa’s continuing reliance on outside powers to often intervene to resolve conflicts, either with troops, mediation, or carrot-and-stick economic incentives. In Sudan’s case, a 2005 agreement largely pushed by the United States laid the groundwork for last month’s referendum.

Now the US is suggesting it could remove Sudan (or what will be Sudan minus the South) from its list of state terrorism sponsors if President Omar al-Bashir continues to support the South’s secession by working through a checklist of unresolved issues. Washington may also seek deferral of the International Criminal Court’s prosecution of President Bashir for war crimes relating to Darfur.

If so, will the US end up backing another dictator for the sake of stability, as it has in Egypt?

What the people of South Sudan want is what many Africans aspire to: freedom from tyranny and deprivation. The continent will be watching, and hoping that they succeed – and find a way to deal with the challenges to which so many can relate.

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