As Southern Sudan prepares to vote in the secession referendum on January 9,
As Southern Sudan prepares to vote in the secession referendum on January 9, the question on the lips of most observers is whether a vote for secession would spur more secessionist tendencies on the continent.
According to a brief by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) “Secession and Precedent in Sudan and Africa” written by Jon Temin, a senior programme officer in USIP’s Centre for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, such a scenario is unlikely.
First, Africa’s borders are largely accepted. Secondly, most secession movements in Africa are weak and few stand a real chance of success, or have the international support they would need to advance their cause.
In 1993, when Eritrea was planning to secede from Ethiopia, Sam Kiley wrote in the Times of April 23: “A ‘yes’ vote could… stimulate ethnic secessionist movements from Cairo to Cape Town… the impact of their new status may be catastrophic elsewhere on the continent, where secessionist tendencies have hitherto been held back by the international community’s refusal to recognise new nations.”
In The Independent of May 25, 1993, Richard Dowden wrote: “Independence will encourage secessionists in other African countries. Angola, Cameroon, Senegal and South Africa all face potential splits.”
According to the brief by Mr Temin, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi is quoted as warning, “What is happening in Sudan could become a contagious disease that affects the whole of Africa.”
On another occasion, he predicted “the beginning of the crack in Africa’s map.”
It is not lost on observers that the Libyan leader has been at the forefront of campaigning for a vote for unity in Sudan as have other Arab league members.
But Mr Temin argues that predictions of disaster following Eritrea’s secession were overstated — the Ethiopia-Eritrea war that followed was catastrophic, but there was no subsequent surge in secessionist efforts elsewhere in Africa.
Any secession in Africa challenges the long-held norm of accepting borders drawn up by colonial powers, illogical as some of them may be.
This principle of uti possidetis (Latin for “as you possess”) was enshrined by participants in a meeting of the then Organisation of African Unity in 1964, whose final declaration “solemnly declares that all Member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national Independence.”
In the 1960s this made sense: African states were brand new, weak and looking to ensure their very existence.
When Biafra (in Nigeria) and Katanga (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) tried to break away from their mother states in the 1960s, it was prudent to discourage their secession given the weakness of those states and the confusion that could have resulted from their secession, given that other African states were only then coming into existence.
At the time, it was important to establish the principle that colonial borders would stand.
But 50 years later, the context is different. Most African states are well-established and their borders are accepted. By and large, the map of Africa is settled.
The borders governing just a few states, however, are persistently problematic, none more so than Sudan.
If Southern Sudanese vote to secede and gain their Independence, it will be the most significant redrawing of African borders since decolonisation.