The World’s Newest Nation?

Southern Sudan’s struggle for independence

They called it their “Final Walk to Freedom” – a light at the end of the tunnel, bringing years of war and instability to a close. From January 9 to 15 the people of southern Sudan flocked to polling stations by the millions, driven by the hope of being able to shape their own destiny.
The “Final Walk” was a referendum in which the predominantly-Christian south of Sudan decided whether or not to secede from the predominantly-Muslim north. The final result, announced on February 7, was a resounding cry for independence. Now the work of building a nation begins.

That the ‘Final Walk’ happened at all is a small miracle. Despotism, unrest, and violence have plagued Sudan ever since British colonial rule ended in 1956. The referendum is part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a war that claimed 2 million lives. International pressure from the African Union, the United Nations, and the United States helped ensured a smooth, peaceful election.

“It’s a big step forward,” says David Arase, Professor of Politics at Pomona College. “The new state actually makes political sense. The typical African country’s borders have nothing to do with the ethnic geography.”

If Southern Sudan does become the world’s newest country, the hard part will have only just begun. Difficult negotiations lie ahead as to where to draw the new border and how to manage Sudan’s most precious resource: oil. The north will seek continual access to the south’s oil reserves, while the south will need the north for pipelines and refineries. Furthermore, the fates of southerners in the north and northerners in the south must be determined. With so much still at stake, the possibility of violence erupting yet again cannot be eliminated. Professor Elizabeth Crighton of Pomona College’s Politics Department urges a strong international presence to prevent this from happening. “In most cases of secession, having strong international pressure to enforce the safety of both sides helps,” says Crighton.

The referendum leaves more unanswered questions within each of the two countries. Northern dictator Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of orchestrating the genocide in Darfur, has spent his 21-year reign pledging to keep Sudan together. His failure to deliver, along with increasing economic hardships and the confidence of imparted from popular demonstrations across the Arab world, has elicited calls for the end of his regime.

Those living in Southern Sudan will encounter even more troubles as they take on the daunting job of building a new country. The most immediate threat is tension between ethnic groups, which may boil over as the post-independence euphoria fades away. Crighton, however, believes that the sense of solidarity from having been oppressed by northern Sudan, where the capital of Kartomou lies, may be a stronger unifying force.

Moreover, leaders of the new nation will need to provide some semblance of the rule of law in an area of the world where lawlessness is the norm. They will need to lay the foundations of a functional education system in a region where the literacy rate languishes at 24%. They will need to build infrastructure in a 250,000 square-mile stretch of land that contains only 30 miles of paved roads. Perhaps most importantly, they will need to deal with some of the worst humanitarian conditions on the planet. Over 90% of the people in southern Sudan live on less than a dollar a day, and they suffer from the highest infant mortality rate in the world.

“They don’t have an existing government infrastructure,” says Arase. “They’re starting from zero.”

The odds seem stacked against Southern Sudan in every way. Given its unlikely path to independence, however, the people there have already overcome greater obstacles. Only months before the voting took place, many were predicting violence and the derailment of the referendum. And yet over the course of six wonderful days, over three million jubilant voters showed up at the polls to have their voices heard – an incredible turnout of 83%. The referendum may not actually be southern Sudan’s Final Walk to Freedom, but it will do for a first step.

Derek Ha is a freshman at Pomona College and is undeclared in terms of major, religion, and politics. His favorite activities include drinking coffee, dousing his food in Tabasco, reading the news, making jokes only he finds funny, and singing at inappropriate times.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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