Imagine if Washington, D.C. had been built in the shape of a Chesapeake Bay crab. The provisional government of South Sudan plans to celebrate independence by rebuilding its future national capital of Juba in the shape of a rhinoceros. Other plans include reshaping two provincial capitals into a giraffe and a pineapple. This wouldn’t be the first such odd experiment in urban planning; Brazil’s capital Brasilia was meant to evoke the shape of an airplane, and the outline of the Argentine city of Cuidad Evita was based on the silhouette of Evita Peron.
The people of South Sudan currently are voting on a referendum to separate from the rest of Sudan and create the world’s 195th country. The vote tally has passed the 60 percent turnout threshold to be considered valid and the results - universally expected to be for independence - are likely to be announced next month.
The referendum caps a decades-long civil war in the African nation that became a cause celebre in Europe and America. Mass murder in the Darfur region was recognized as one of the worst human-rights tragedies on the globe. In 2005, facing severe international pressure, the government in Khartoum signed a peace agreement to end fighting and allow an independence referendum.
Unified Sudan was a nation that never should have existed. Until 1946, the north and south were administered as separate British colonial possessions based on long-standing cultural, ethnic and religious divisions. The two regions were combined, however, which set the stage for conflict. After independence in 1956, Sudan was in an almost continual state of internal war.
The bloody feud between the larger, more populous Muslim north and the Christian south intensified as Sudan developed its energy sector. Nearly 80 percent of Sudanese oil originates in the south and is taken by pipelines to sea ports in the north. Most of the energy revenue wound up serving northern interests, leaving the south an impoverished wasteland.
Now oil is the hope for the future of South Sudan and will provide a guaranteed income for the fledgling state, but the country has significant challenges to overcome. It is a region the size of Texas with only 40 miles of paved roads, a largely illiterate, poverty-stricken population, no telephone lines, scant electricity, rampant corruption and negligible government control. Profits from oil exports could as easily find their way to provincial tribal leaders’ foreign bank accounts as to the $10 billion “Rhino City” project. On the upside, the enthusiasm of the newly free people may make up for some of these deficiencies, at least in the short run.
Sudan is on track to join the list of countries that have redrawn their internal boundaries since the end of the Cold War, such as the former Soviet states, the former Yugoslavian states and the former Czechoslovakia. For good or for ill, the referendum may give hope to other separatist movements, such as the Kurds in Iraq, the Flemish in Belgium or even quixotic Vermonters. The world may not be ready for Montpelier rebuilt in the shape of a cow.