This week, in accordance with the Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended two decades of the country’s second post-independence civil war in which millions of lives were lost, Southern Sudanese will vote in a referendum either to remain as part of a united Sudan or to secede. If the plebiscite is free and fair, the South is expected to secede from Africa’s largest country by a wide margin. This exercise in self-determination was hard-earned, as Southern Sudanese have boldly and tirelessly fought in both peaceful and violent ways for political, socioeconomic, cultural and religious equality vis-à-vis the North since the Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956. (It was Britain that created the Sudan’s artificial boundaries.) It is thus a monumental and emotional time for Southern Sudanese, as they proudly march into formal nationhood.
There are many reasons why the rest of the world should join Southern Sudanese in celebrating. First, the referendum on self-determination mirrors the desire of people the world over for self-determination, freedom and autonomy. Second, the imminent independence of Southern Sudan represents the latest accomplishment in Africa’s historical decolonization process, which began in the 1960s and continued through the fall of Apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s. Finally, it ends at least a half century of war and destruction that left most of Southern Sudan outside of the modern world, with less than 20 miles of paved roads as of 2005. Absent war, the people of both Southern and Northern Sudan will be able to focus on state-building to both sides’ mutual benefit.
However, after rightful and joyous celebration, Southern Sudan’s arduous task of nation-building and asserting its rightful place in an ever-increasingly complex, competitive, and interdependent global system will resume. As African experience shows, the process of decolonization is long and winding and many deep challenges remain after formal independence. The new nation would be wise to take heed of the post-colonial experience of other African nations, which suggests that some of the most critical and difficult challenges ahead are promoting (1) good governance; (2) economic growth and self-sufficiency; and (3) equity.
Most African countries have a poor record on governance. While many national constitutions mandate separation of government powers, checks and balances, free and fair elections, public accountability and transparency, etc., in many African countries these constitutional provisions are mere formalities. Cultivating constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law arguably starts at the top. If government officials do not respect rule of law and, instead, grant exceptions for themselves through various forms of self-dealing (like corruption and nepotism), such attitudes will trickle down to all levels of society. The ultimate result will be a corrosion of the new state and general social norms, as in the Sudan and many other African countries.
In the decades after independence, many African countries have failed to achieve positive economic growth and self-sufficiency. The reasons are many and complex, but include: misguided economic policies, corruption and nepotism that siphon public funds from sorely needed public goods and infrastructure to private bank accounts, over-reliance on international aid and, in several cases, over-reliance on specific commodities (e.g., oil and other mineral resources) rather than a diversified industrial base for export earnings (foreign currency) and tax revenues. It is also important to acknowledge the importance of weak bargaining power at the international trade negotiating table. In many cases, economic control remained with former colonial powers, or shifted to multinational corporations, despite political independence. This asymmetry of economic influence over terms of trade undoubtedly contributed to African economic crises.
Southern Sudan must avoid these economic pitfalls. There is good reason to believe that it can. In the recent decade African economic growth has been positive due to improved economic policies. In addition, some countries have shown themselves to be savvy players at international economic bargaining. Rwanda, also emerging from devastating conflict, is arguably a case in point. Southern Sudanese policymakers will be wise to glean lessons from Rwanda and other recent African economic success stories. Achieving economic success will help Southern Sudan to avoid a return to internal violence and instability and possibly to ward off Northern aggression and exploitation.
Tribal, ethnic and gender inequality have stifled many African countries, with the perverse implication that some marginalized groups (such as Southern Sudanese within the Sudan) have sometimes felt as though they had been better off under colonial rule. Perceived inequality impairs governance, stifles economic growth, and fosters conflict. The implication is clear: the new nation’s government must foster inclusion and equality of opportunity in all spheres (i.e., government, business, education, public goods distribution, land ownership and use, etc.) It must enact and zealously enforce policies and laws that prohibit tribalism, nepotism, corruption and gender inequality. Its leaders must negotiate astutely and transparently with North Sudan and other regional and international parties, and with multinational corporations, in the best interests of the entire country – not just in pursuit of private interests.
These are some of the historical lessons I derive from Africa’s post-independence history as well as from Southern Sudan’s recent period of semi-autonomy (2005 to the present). By now, what does and what doesn’t work in Southern Sudan should be relatively clear. Officials and citizens who are sincere about correcting post-2005 mistakes now have a great window of opportunity to do so while the world is watching and lending perhaps its greatest support ever to Southern Sudan.
When the party ends, final call has been made, and the curtain and lights go down, the real work of nation-building will kick back into full gear (leave alone the remaining negotiating challenges vis-à-vis the North and numerous logistical issues, like accommodating a sudden massive influx of returnees from the North and abroad). The international community must lend a hand to its newest sovereign member and ensure its place at the table, while acknowledging Southern Sudanese as the ultimate drivers of their destiny. Southern Sudanese have proven their resilience beyond doubt and I have every confidence that the new nation will thrive with some help from well-meaning friends.
As we saw in the Balkans, there is great risk of genocidal backlash against people who assert their autonomy against the State. Thus, in addition to those noted above, the obligations of the international community (particularly the United States) include ensuring that the North does not resort to renewed genocidal violence over its loss of the oil- and resource-rich South.
About the author: Laura Nyantang Beny is professor of law at University of Michigan Law School. She is also co-founder and director of Peace Dividend, an online platform that facilitates direct lending by the Southern Sudanese Diaspora and others to Southern Sudanese entrepreneurs who lack access to traditional sources of finance.