This Sunday’s referendum in South Sudan is a seriously big deal. I didn’t think it would happen. I thought it would go the way of the referendum in the Western Sahara, the one that should have taken place well over a decade ago but hasn’t, because the Moroccans are still afraid that they might lose. Maybe that particular referendum will never take place.
But on Sunday, unless all hell breaks loose, the vast majority of people who vote in Southern Sudan are likely to choose the option of independence. Even Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, is now admitting in public that his days of being in charge of Africa’s biggest country are numbered — and soon Algeria will be able to claim that title.
I feel like cutting Mr Al-Bashir a bit of slack today. He’s been saying all the right things this week — he even told a gathering in the southern capital Juba that he will support good relations between his rump Sudan and the new country. All this from a man with an international arrest warrant hanging over his head, with much of his oil-rich resources about to become part of another country and with the possibility of the opposition in Khartoum ganging up on him, effectively removing him from his position as top guy in the north. And then of course, George Clooney isn’t going to let us forget about Darfur, the reason Mr Bashir has an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against him.
Nope, Mr Al-Bashir has some tough days ahead. In an attempt to appease the hardliners in the north he’s likely to make Arabic the only official language there and strengthen the role Sharia law plays in the judiciary.
But back to the big story — it looks like Africa is about to give birth to a new country. This is a serious big deal because it is not, as has usually been the case in the past, a former colony getting independence but maintaining its old colonial boundaries. No, this is a creation where the new boundary between north and south is an African creation.
Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that both the UN and the AU have gone along with this process. I do wonder what sort of impetus the referendum results will give to others in neighbouring countries with genuine problems with their own borders. Quite a few places come to mind, and several of them are quite close to Sudan — the ethnically Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the ethnically Somali north-eastern region of Kenya, the predominantly African southern region of Chad, and of course a bit further west we have two very good examples — today’s Côte d’Ivoire, cut almost in half by a religious rift and Nigeria, where those of us of a certain age remember Biafra and those a bit younger know what many in the Niger Delta think of central government in Abuja.
Perhaps I’ve been too nice to Mr Al-Bashir and he knows exactly what he’s doing — perhaps he knows that he’s sowing instability in the region. Whatever the case, the repercussions of what happens in South Sudan on Sunday will be felt for decades in the rest of Africa, and may keep the cartographers gainfully employed for years to come.
I generally don’t like the idea of creating new borders. John Lennon’s idea of a passport-free world in his song Imagine is a concept I’d like to believe we could slowly work towards. But that’s not likely to happen in my lifetime. The number of member states in the UN General Assembly tends to increase rather than decrease. Chances are Palestine will follow in the footsteps of South Sudan and join the relatively new ranks of East Timor, Montenegro and Belarus in the not-too-distant future. I tend to believe that the Western Sahara has only a marginally greater chance of taking up its seat in New York than KwaZulu-Natal had during half-hearted threats to secede back in the 1980s. But hey — history lasts for a long time.
I’ve had the pleasure, and yes, it was a pleasure, to vote in two referenda on independence — both in Quebec — one in 1980 and the other in 1995. The first one was exciting (I was also much younger) while the second was scary. I watched friends, colleagues and neighbours turn on each other. The vote in 1995 was close — somewhere in the region of 1% of the vote stopped Quebec from pulling out of Canada. I believe that the trauma the country went through at the time contributed to English-speaking Canada moving politically to the right — today the country is run by a prime minister not unlike the now retired George W Bush of the better-known southern neighbour.
I don’t know what would have happened had Quebec actually become independent, but I don’t believe most English-speaking Canadians would have wished the new country well, as Omar al-Bashir did in Juba a couple of days ago.
I’m looking forward to my hindsight kicking in on the Sudan question. In the meantime, I’m hoping for peace, and if I can have a bit more than that, I’m also hoping for prosperity.