Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Sudan: South Sudan and Eritrean Precedents

Photo Credit: enoughproject.org

By Eskinder Nega*
Cortesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

ADDIS ABABA (IDN) - If there is solace for the injured pride of the northern Sudanese, who have to grapple with the unambiguous rejection of the southern Sudanese, it lies, ironically, in the exceptionally high percentage, 98.8%, who voted for independence. In neighbouring Eritrea, which voted for independence from Ethiopia in 1993, 99.8%, a world record, had allegedly opted for independence.

In Ethiopia, the secession of Eritrea is still a fresh wound. The sense that a nation has been ripped at the historical and spiritual core pervades the national mood. Two decades have not been enough to reverse a sentiment of national defeat and tragedy.

In Sudan, the rise of Islamism, which romanticizes a pure Islamic state, has tempered the sense of national loss. With the formal secession of Southern Sudan due in July, Sudan-proper is now closer to the idealized norm: a mono-religious nation. Sudan will now finally be able to embrace an Islamic identity and heritage openly. There will no more be the ambiguities and uncertainties that prevailed when the south was part of the nation.

As luck would have it for the north, the one issue, the status of Abyie, a disputed area between the two sides with ample deposits of hydrocarbon riches, which could have spurned a happy ending, had also ended favourably at the last minute.

Abyie would most probably have figured less in the stakes for both northerners and southerners if not for the 'black gold' that sways in abundance below its hot, dusty terrain.

To northern Nomads, Abyie has always been grazing land to their cattle, which they had passed through unhindered for centuries. Southerners, on the other hand, have also inhabited it as agro-pastoralists for centuries. The two communities tolerated each other until the advent of colonial administrators.

But whatever the blunders of Colonial administrators, less blood would most probably have been shed over the years if not for the discovery of oil in the 1970s. Northerners could not resist the temptation, however ill advised it had always seemed, to redistrict oil rich southern areas, primarily Abyie, in to northern administrations.

Inevitably, war, and, in a way that is only possible in Africa in contemporary times, stealthily and brutally, ethnic cleansing ensued for decades. Unsurprisingly, southerners, still essentially agro-pastoralists, suffered much more at the receiving end.

Perhaps more as a consolation prize for acquiescing to the referendum, rather than the merits of an iron-clad case, the north has been awarded most of the oil in Abyei by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), in The Hague, to whom the case had been referred to by the consent of both parties.

And so what European colonizers had disastrously lumped together as the modern nation of Sudan oblivious to history, psychology and sentiment was cleverly given leeway to succumb to local will; albeit generous concessions to the stronger party.

With the secession of Eritrea, the colonial status-quo was re-established four decades after being reversed by local forces when Eritrea was reintegrated, with the blessing of the UN, with the historical hinterland, Ethiopia.


Where lies the fate of Africa? In the permanence of the colonial heritage, as is embodied in the Eritrean secession? Or in the resurgence of pre-colonial trajectories, as is embodied in the South Sudanese secession?

Scan the continent and both forces are in evidence.

In Somalia, a rarity for its linguistic, religious and ethnic homogeneity, colonial division, in the form of British and Italian Somalilands, was reversed by union of the two sides upon independence, but has been a de facto reality for the past two decades. What was once the British part insists on return to colonial division, and has affirmed its choice through successive elections.

In Nigeria, the quest for secession by the Igbos, who had briefly managed to christen an independent state, Biafra, had defied the colonial past, but was decisively crushed. The European invention, Nigeria, not only endures but is stronger and surer of itself than ever before. But in North West Africa, the disappearance of Western Sahara has so far successively defied the colonial design. An Eritrean like resurrection has so far eluded its proponents.

In Algeria, Cameroon, Comoros, Cote d’Ivorie, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, and South Africa, the colonial inheritance is being challenged by secessionist demands of varying potency. Some are serious, others, for now, the realm of fringe groups.

Ironically, Sudan and Ethiopia, the only two African countries which had willingly let parts of their territories go their separate ways, are the ones still haunted by the most serious demands for secession in the continent.

In Sudan, the most serious problem is Darfur. But with religion absent as the overriding issue of contention between the two sides, Khartoum is less likely to agree to further partition. Darfur, on the other hand, could be inspired by the Southern Sudanese precedent and opt for secession. In this instance, the Sudanese centre will most probably fight to preserve what is left of the colonial boundaries. A referendum is pending.

In Ethiopia, which is Africa's lone state created by indigenous actors, the legitimacy of the state is actively, and uniquely, contested not only by local parties but also regional powers. Ethiopia excites passion, both local and regional, in a way no other African country does. Propped by regional powers, but amply fuelled by domestic repression, a small but persistent secessionist insurgency in Ogaden, the Somali enclave in eastern Ethiopia, has convincingly defied military defeat. With or without the gun, Ethiopia will continue to be questioned and challenged domestically and regionally.

Which way will Africa then go? The Southern Sudanese or the Eritrean way?

For now and the immediate future, defence of colonial boundaries constitutes the essence of the African mainstream. The Eritrean secession had affirmed and reinforced it. But this convention has now been punctured by Africa’s newest nation. Many subdued hopes around the continent will no doubt be revived.

Time will tell if the African future will go the way of Southern Sudan through a resurgent Biafra, or if the precedent will be discouraged, as symbolized by the Eritrean secession, through revived Western Sahara.

Until then, the overriding certainty is that at least in Africa history has not ended.

*Eskinder Nega is an Ethiopian journalist, who was incarcerated several times for reporting fraud in parliamentary elections in Ethiopia in 2005. He contributes frequently also to www.addisvoice.com and www.abugidainfo.com