It is hard to remember that only ten years ago a near unanimous vote of the people of South Sudan voted to separate from that country in light of the nearly continuous fighting among itself that South Sudan has seen. It is easy to have a vision of a better future when one is no longer going to be oppressed by some other people, but then one gets to the realities of government and finds that one needs more than the memory of oppression and the desire to escape it in order to create a functioning government that is able to enjoy the peaceful and at least tacit consent of its people. The fervent desire to run away from and escape an evil past, as South Sudan’s people certainly had that, is by no means a guarantee that one will be able to find a better future, and this ought to be a sobering reminder to us about why and how this is so.
South Sudan, as it currently exists, is a cautionary tale that one needs more than a common enemy and a common experience of hardship in order to be a functioning nation state. The CIA fact book for South Sudan notes that the average age of the population in the country is 18, that there are at least twenty important regional languages, and that some 65% of the total population and more than 70% of women are literate, and that the only major city in the country happens to be the nation’s capital. None of these are recipes for harmony and tranquility. It is not the experience of colonial abuse that properly prepares one for independence, but the experience of self-government.
This is a little-remembered lesson of the American republic. One of the main reasons why America declared its independence when it did was the belated recognition that more than 150 years of experiments in self-government in peripheral colonies that had begun with the House of Burgesses in Virginia and the Mayflower compact in Plymouth and numerous other similar experiences in other colonies was threatened by a Parliament which desired to make it plain in the face of popular discontent over taxation that it had full authority to decide what it would and that the colonies would have to deal with it. They did not, ultimately, want to deal with that, and while there is little workable way to think of a genuine representative democracy in a global 18th century empire given limitations of communication and transportation, there was at least before about 1773 or so a genuine possibility for some sort of power sharing dominion status that could have reduced tensions and created some buy-in for a looser imperial relationship, but by the time such ideas were broached the horses had already left the stable.
The people of South Sudan, and many other places of the world, have little experience in genuine self-government in such a way that teaches authorities of the need to consider the consent of the governed, and not only the support of one’s kingroup or tribe or clan or some other smaller group. The very strategies that help build cohesion within a group, such as the search for spoils upon electoral victory, threaten the cohesion of the larger society in which those groups operate. It is one thing to unite against the oppression faced by a group of peoples by people operating of far away Khartoum, but hard to recognize that different people will be governing from Juba who may not be any more able to act for the common good when one is living in some remote province concerned about pasture for one’s animals in a nation with only 4% arable land and up to a fifth of the country that can be covered in seasonal wetlands of a particularly impenetrable variety. The lessons of South Sudan are by no means unique. Postcolonial regimes have frequently lacked legitimacy, and such nations formed in the aftermath of colonial oppression have frequently lacked unity. This is true whether one is leaving rule by Arabized Muslims as in Sudan or European empires or Ethiopian domination or any other such fate. Longing to be free is by no means adequate preparation for being free. And in the end, we are never free of the question about the use of power and the legitimacy of authority.