Today, in a report from the UN News Service , it appears as if the referendum on the independence of South Sudan will reach the required 60% threshold in order to be valid and therefore no extension will be necessary. So far, according to reports, there has been sporadic violence and a far heavier turnout in South Sudan than in North Sudan. Sudan is one of the more fatefully divided nations in Africa, long dominated by its Muslim and heavily Arabic northern half despite the presence of most of its people in the animist and Christian southern half, where most of Sudan’s oil is located.
The resulting exploitation of the people (being sold into slavery and massacred, among other oppressions) of the Southern part of Sudan for the economic benefit of the North and its corrupt dictators has led to a lengthy civil war within Sudan between the north and the south resulting in many deaths and internal displacement of its citizens in refugee camps. Judging by the turnout so far, it appears likely as if Africa will have its first independent nation in sometime in South Sudan (whatever it chooses to be called).
What I would like to explore, though, is the implications of what would appear to be a rare successful secession effort within Africa. Since the independence of African nations from Europe in the 1950’s and beyond, there has been a doctrine that any state, no matter how corrupt, no matter how ramshackle, and no matter how ill-advised in its borders, is inviolate and not to be divided. Now that this doctrine appears to have been breached in the allowing of a region to seek independence despite no history of a separate colonial identity, there is a clear precedent to begin dealing with the large problem of borders in the African continent in other areas.
Two immediate states spring to mind in Africa as being worthy of an internationally monitored and official independence referendum to determine their fates–Somaliland and Western Sahara. Both of these areas have lengthy histories as de facto independent states, both have the history of being independent colonies from their de jure rulers (Somaliland was British Somaliland as opposed to Italian Somaliland, and Western Sahara was ruled by Spain). Allowing these two nations and their people to have a free and fair and internationally accepted referendum would violate the precedents set by allowing other former independent colonies of other nations to regain their independent status (like Eritrea in 1991), nor would it lead (necessarily) to a rush of secession movements. Moreover, both Somaliland and Western Sahara already have either full (Somaliland) or substantial (Western Sahara) de facto control over their breakaway regions.
It must be freely acknowledged that many of the borders of Africa are deeply problematic, leaving some people divided among numerous countries (the Somalis, the Berbers) while leaving in other countries multipolar states with strong rivalries between diffrent religious and ethnic “cores” (like Sudan and Nigeria). The establishment of fair referenda to examine the claims of these areas may lead to the breakup of some nations (like Sudan or Somalia) but it is also a way in which people may be finally, after decades of either tyranny or anarchy, to chart their own destinies as best as they are able. The world ought not to be in the business of propping up tottering regimes, nor of denying the rights of the world’s people to govern themselves as best as they are able. Recognizing this truth in South Sudan may be a necessary step in recognizing it in other places where the truth has been for far too long denied or swept under the rug.