What is the largest country in Africa, geographically?
If you said Sudan, you would technically be correct, but not perhaps for very much longer. The results from a referendum vote held in Southern Sudan in early January are in, and close to an amazing 99% of participants voted for independence from the North. Clearly, unlike Australians, the Southern Sudanese know how to embrace national and constitutional change! Assuming that the formal declaration of independence for the South is made as planned on July 9th, and Sudan’s territory is formally divided, the often violent tensions that have existed for decades between the Northern and the Southern peoples of Sudan will have a new dynamic, Algeria will have a new claim to fame as Africa’s largest country, and Africa will have its 54th nation-state (as yet, unnamed).
The referendum has come in the midst of what has been a volatile but hopeful period for Northern Africa, what with the still unfolding demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the recent popular uprising in Tunisia. Human Rights Watch reports that recent reciprocal protests in Khartoum and other towns in the North of Sudan resulted in violent reprisals by security forces and the prolonged detention of numerous activists.
The referendum result and its aftermath may also figure as a turning point in the International Criminal Court’s efforts to indict Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in the Darfur region; a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest was issued way back in March 2009. Despite campaigning actively against the secession of the South, President al-Bashir has indicated that he will respect the referendum result; a decision that some will cynically attribute to his desire to release some of the international diplomatic pressure being brought to bear on his presidency. The African community and the West are already disinclined to force the issue politically and bring al-Bashir to justice; if al-Bashir facilitates the peaceful secession of a large chunk of his own country, they will be even less inclined to act.
Needless to say, the region looks set for political volatility for the months and years ahead, as the fledgling “South Sudan”, dominated by Christians and tribal groups, seeks to negotiate a lasting peace and oil-sharing agreements with the predominantly Sunni Muslim North. Sudan has been wracked by internal turmoil for decades, and this new development represents both a tremendous opportunity for the Sudanese and a geopolitical threat for the broader region; China’s continuing robust support of the al-Bashir regime and the recent political instability in North Africa are cases in point.
This referendum result may well come to mean a lot more to us than a mere redrawing of the maps.
ELSEWHERE: The Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation has a shattering factsheet [PDF] outlining the profound sociological issues faced by this fledgling state. It’s worth reminding ourselves in this context of the apparent views of the Opposition Leader on the situation in Africa.
Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo.