The news out of South Sudan has been very positive for the last couple of weeks, and continues to be after the first day of polling (polls will be open until January 15). Turnout and enthusiasm have been staggeringly high.
Even up to a month ago, many people believed northern Sudan would never allow the south to secede. However, recently, Bashir, the ICC-indicted president of Sudan, made public statements that he would recognize the legitimacy of south Sudan if (when) voters approved secession and that he would not take military action to prevent south Sudan becoming independent.
So now the fears are not so much about what the north will do, but what the southerners might do to themselves. Already on Saturday, a southern militia led by Gatluak Gai staged an attack to disrupt the referendum vote. It was quickly put down by the South Sudanese army, but it shows that there are still elements in the south of the country that want to keep things destabilized. There are also tribal rifts that will not be mended by a referendum and a new identity as “South Sudanese.”
The issue of identity is interesting on a continent where national boundaries were drawn by Europeans with no regard to existing realities and where families were split and enemies merged. The secession of South Sudan is one step towards rectifying this, as north and south Sudan really are two different worlds – Arab/African, Muslim/Christian. It is unrealistic, however, to redraw the map to recognize the thousands of traditional kingdoms, clans and tribal boundaries that existed a few hundred years ago.
I recently read an article in The Monitor, called South Sudan: Countdown to Freedom, that got me thinking. It refers to a South Sudanese politician talking about “Suganda.” Basically, that South Sudan and Uganda have more in common than north and south Sudan, and that they could form a unified state. This got me thinking about a single country comprised of South Sudan and Northern Uganda.
It could make a lot of sense. Northern Uganda already feels disenfranchised from control and power in Uganda, and culturally there as many, if not more, similarities with South Sudan than with central Uganda. Intermarriage and cross-border trade already make the boundary fuzzy. The oil wealth in southern Sudan and the agricultural potential in northern Uganda could combine to create a formidable economy. Once Uganda builds an oil refinery, a pipeline could even be built to that facility, making the current one through northern Sudan obsolete. This would further cement the independence of the African south from the Arab north, and also justify a larger refining facility in Uganda. It could also make it easier to manage for the wildlife that migrates across the current border.
Obviously there are challenges to this. Part of the reason why northern Sudan is allowing this referendum to go forward is because the oil currently must go through the north, enabling them to continue sharing in the oil revenues. A reroute of the oil would reduce this willingness. The power center in central Uganda would also not take secession lightly, leaving Suganda landlocked and surrounded by uncooperative neighbors.
Northern Uganda has also not been abused by the central government of Uganda nearly as much as South Sudan has been by the north, so the political will is not there at this point. However, if South Sudan becomes strong in the next ten years, and the trade relationship grows even more, who knows? With national identity being tenuous in many African countries, success in South Sudan could cause many people to take a new look at old boundaries.
This referendum is momentous. It is a victory after a hard-fought battle that raged for years and took many lives. There are still challenges ahead, such as establishing the boundary between north and south, and getting control of the many militias still operating throughout the south. Hopefully the visionary leadership that got South Sudan to this point, and who captured the world’s attention, will create a new country that can represent all of its citizens and make them proud to be South Sudanese.
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala