Sunday December 12 2010

Will Sudan threaten the idea of African statehood?

By Alan Tacca

Alan TaccaAfter a bitter war in which thousands upon thousands were armed in two armies facing each other, and after protracted negotiations, a state called Eritrea was created and split from Ethiopia. In the same Horn of Africa, a part of Somalia separated from the old country and called itself Somaliland.

Somaliland has not yet been recognised by the international community as an independent country, but it is neither less no more viable than the war-torn rogue state, Somalia proper.
However, the biggest deal in separation on the post-colonial African continent will very likely be when South Sudan breaks away from the north, if the January referendum takes place, and if the southerners vote for a separate country as expected.

In the 1960s, Biafra would have been an early shocker, had the Igbo rebellion under the leadership of Gen. Ojukwu been able to resist the onslaught of the Nigerian army under Gen. Gowon in the brutal civil war.

Powerful identity causes, experiences or perceptions of humiliation, and economic injustice and political exclusion are some of the factors that have pumped up the passions that put those separations on the agendas of the affected nations. As we can see, the rebellions occasionally brought a harvest.

The war between South Sudanese rebels and the Khartoum government went on for so long and was so savage, and the stakes in the oil-rich region are so high, that if the Sudan finally splits (and by a vote), the event would definitely attract global attention. But more importantly, the split could potentially influence the thinking about statehood in many other parts of Africa. Its impact will be much greater than happened after Eritrea or Somaliland came into being.

Several months back, Libya’s Col. Gaddafi upset Nigeria’s officialdom and many old style African nationalists by suggesting that Nigeria should be split in two, a predominantly Muslim north, and a largely Christian south.
More recently, col. Gaddafi warned (disapprovingly) that a Sudan split would inspire many other countries to try the same medicine, suggesting that there could be chaos all around us.

Commentators saw in these two positions a typical Gaddafian inconsistence. However, there is in fact an underlying truth that Col. Gaddafi’s contradiction illuminated.

Let us look at it this way: The demographic strength of the Nigerian north and that of the south are fairly even, and power is sometimes held by a northerner, and sometimes by a southerner.

There even seems to be a polite understanding in the ruling elite that this alternation is healthy and should be maintained. Only a split Nigeria would more or less guarantee a permanent Muslim authority - in the north. And Col. Gaddafi would have a more assured area of influence out there.

On the other hand, Sudan has been exclusively in the hands of Muslim leaders since its independence. Without serious destabilising rebellions (and the referendum), Sudan’s demographics would probably ensure the status quo was maintained.

With the creation of northern Nigeria and the maintenance of a United Sudan, there would be two nations that are predominantly Muslim. Not bad for Col. Gaddafi.

Perhaps because he himself is bedecked with so many trappings that are associated with an obsessive quest for personal identity, Col. Gaddafi (roguishly opportunistic as he may be) is quite conscious of the same drive in other people.

His flirtation with Africa’s traditional leaders can be viewed partly in that context. Col. Gaddafi’s remarks about Nigeria show that he is not necessarily averse to redrawing Africa’s boundaries.

A new nation, South Sudan, would for him undesirably reduce the “imperial” sphere of Islam, but he understands why it would fire the imagination of many other Africans. As for Africa’s other despots further south, the lesser of Col. Gaddafi’s worry is probably their greatest fear, the very idea that the ill-governed post-colonial state can be dismantled with the blessing of the international community.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator and artist