Last Saturday evening, the weeklong referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan ended. Polling stations closed, ballot boxes were sealed and over the coming weeks, the vote will be tallied. The result, which is expected in mid-February, seems certain to split Africa's largest country and create the world's newest nation.
Despite violent clashes in the oil-rich Abyei region last week, which reportedly left more than 30 dead, the referendum in the rest of the country has been a resounding success. Turnouts were high with an overwhelming number of southern Sudan's 4 million eligible voters participating. The indefinite postponement of a referendum in Abyei has ironically served to postpone a potentially explosive source of conflict over oil revenues in the region.
Secession of the predominantly Christian South from the Muslim North would take place in July. The partition would represent the final stage of a peace process that successfully brought to an end Africa's longest war, but as the violence in Abyei highlights, it carries with it dangers of a return to instability. Key to averting a slide back to civil war will be international recognition of a newly formed "Southern Sudan," not just by the United Nations and global powers, but crucially from the African Union (AU). But with respect for colonial borders being one of the AU's founding principles and fear among many African leaders that southern Sudanese independence could encourage other secessions across the continent, the AU's position on recognition is far from clear.
In October, Muammar Gadhafi warned that the situation in Sudan "could become a contagious disease that affects the whole of Africa." His concerns are keenly felt in countries such as Senegal, Angola, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where separatist groups are currently fighting for autonomy, but they also resonate across a continent where capricious colonial borders have divided tribes and clans for generations. While the AU's predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, reluctantly recognized Eritrea after it broke away from Ethiopia in 1993, the AU have not changed its position. Indeed they AU's position has been a key obstacle to Somaliland's bid for international recognition since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991.
The African continent has grounds to be cautious. Recent experience in Europe suggests that a precedent set by one nation can embolden others. Indeed, Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence without agreement from Serbia or the United Nations may well have prompted South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break away from Georgia later that same year. The wider international community has also traditionally been reluctant to allow new nations to join its exclusive club. Although it should be noted that 30 new countries have been internationally recognized since 1990, most of them emerging from the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia.
However, despite these concerns, international recognition would give the war-ravaged new state of Southern Sudan legitimacy, which, in turn, increases its chance of achieving security and stability. It would also allow the new nation access to bilateral aid and trade opportunities and a voice on the international political and diplomatic stage.
Southern Sudan's chances of gaining international recognition are boosted by the fact that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought Sudan's second civil war to an end in 2005, had tremendous political investment from the international community. The AU is a signatory and guarantor of the CPA, under whose terms last week's referendum on self-determination was guaranteed. America also played an important role in negotiating the CPA, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently spoke in favor of independence for the would-be new nation. It is expected that the United States will be among the first nations to recognize Southern Sudan. Less clear is the position of China, a key investor in Sudan and a strong ally of Sudanese President Omar Bashir.
Ultimately, no matter how unified the position of the international community and how much support it offers, the future of Sudan will be determined by the Sudanese people and their leaders. Every indication suggests that the predominantly Christian South has voted to secede from the Muslim North. In the past, Lt. Gen. Bashir has fiercely opposed southern independence, but has recently adopted a more moderate tone, stating that he would respect the outcome of the referendum. Despite these assurances, the situation remains precarious.
One source of conflict could arise over Sudan's substantial oil revenues. While a majority of Sudan's oil reserves will end up in the South, processing, refining and exporting the oil will continue to be done in the North. Much of the oil is situated in Abyei, a region on Southern Sudan's northern border, where violence erupted this week. Abyei's participation in the referendum has been indefinitely postponed over disputes about voter eligibility.
General Secretary of the African Union Jean Ping acknowledged recently that the referendum will have repercussions for the entire African continent. "Sudan is a crossroads, a point of convergence between East, West and North Africa, as well as between Muslims and Christians," he said. "If the last phase of the implementation process of the CPA is peaceful, orderly and credible, Sudan will serve as an example and further proof that Africa is capable of finding effective solutions to its problems."
Voters in the territory have almost certainly opted for independence and the formation of a 54th African state. The international community should act swiftly to offer international recognition. Doing so would provide the newborn state of Southern Sudan with the legitimacy it will need as it takes its first shaky steps toward creating a stable, secure democracy in one of the poorest and most volatile places on Earth.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and broadcaster.
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