In the nineteenth century, a common Western sobriquet for Africa was “the dark continent,” a reflection of the region’s social and economic delay. With fair reason, the label is no longer used—yet more than a century later, despite shaking off its colonial chains, Africa remains the world’s most underdeveloped continent. But amidst poverty and stagnation, a glimmer of change has emerged in the movement for South Sudanese independence. Citing the alienation of a black minority from the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum, South Sudanese activists held an independence referendum on Jan. 9. Though votes are still being counted, preliminary results suggest nearly 99 percent of South Sudanese voters supported the referendum.
Despite some objections, South Sudanese independence would prove to be a positive development. At the very least, this change in sovereignty would advance the principle of self-determination, alleviate the problems of ethnic persecution and political suppression, and allow for a more equitable distribution of oil wealth. Ultimately, South Sudanese independence would also set a precedent for more natural borders and transparent governance in Africa, improvements that would benefit both citizens of African states and members of the international community.
First, South Sudanese independence would be an affirmation of the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the world saw a shift in sovereignty from empires to self-determined nation-states, a process that continued after the fall of the Soviet Union. In general, the world community has supported this trend.
Yet, until now, South Sudan had missed the boat: As it stands, the region’s eight million, predominately black Christians and animists, live under the rule of an autocratic government by the Arab Muslim majority in the north. With the Sudanese government failing to satisfy the needs of the South Sudanese minority, self-determination could have the potential to establish a more effective government.
Second, independence would be a welcome antidote to the systematic persecution and political exclusion that blacks in South Sudan have faced under Sudanese rule. Throughout the 27-year civil war, crackdowns by the current Sudanese government against rebel activity led to the deaths of over 1.9 million people in South Sudan as well as the displacement of more than four million.
Meanwhile, South Sudan’s people have been politically alienated from the government in Khartoum. Authority is vested in a small clique of northern Arabs who rule in Khartoum, far removed from the marshlands of South Sudan. Accordingly, President Omar al-Bashir has imposed Islamic sharia law nationwide, making limited exceptions for largely non-Muslim regions in the south. Self-determination would be the natural way to allay this problem of representation.
Moreover, independence would allow for an equitable sharing of Sudan’s oil wealth. The U.S. Department of State reports that 70 percent of Sudan’s total exports earnings come from oil, with China emerging as the hungry primary consumer. In 2005, the framework for South Sudanese autonomy granted states in South Sudan an appreciable share of local oil revenues—a prospect that could only be helped by the establishment of clearer lines of sovereignty.
Ultimately, the new partition of oil wealth would serve not only to benefit the people of South Sudan but also the humanitarian situation in Darfur. At present, China provides a market for nearly all of Sudan’s oil exports. Concerned with maintaining Sudan’s market favor, China and other importers have, according to a Human Rights First report published in 2008, undermined international support for action against the Sudanese government’s genocide in Darfur. With oil divided about evenly between Sudan and a newly independent South Sudan, Khartoum’s leverage over international policy will wane, hopefully to the effect of stirring discussion about the ongoing carnage in Darfur.
Finally, South Sudan’s independence would foster a reassessment of African borders. Drawn up over a century ago by British, French, Portuguese, and Belgian imperialists, the borders of today’s African countries bear little relevance to ethnic and historical realities. A change in the contour of Sudan’s boundaries, if conducted peacefully, could create a paradigm shift of international support for unrepresented peoples around the world.
Though some argue that a redrawing of borders in Sudan would carry the risk of destabilization, it is difficult to imagine the country slouching any further toward poverty, stagnation, or war than it has already found itself under the status quo. Leaders of the movement have already welcomed international support, and promised a battery of treaties to prevent conflict with the north.
We can hope that as the window opens on South Sudanese independence, the dawn of a brighter, more prosperous Africa lies ahead.
Joshua Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.
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