After decades of brutal fighting that left millions dead, South Sudan finally seceded from the North on July 9, forming the Republic of South Sudan. Led by President Salva Kiir, the South has many serious obstacles to overcome, including vast poverty, ongoing conflict with the north, and internal tribal violence. Regardless, secession is a vital step on Sudan’s journey towards a long-awaited prosperity, and it is important that the United States not only endorses the split, but also extends support to the months-old nation during this critical time of development, when the South’s government can so easily unravel.
Demographically, Sudan is largely comprised of Arabs and Muslims in the north and Christians and Animists in the south. This cultural and religious divide has led to fierce fighting between the North and South for almost the entirety of Sudan’s post-colonial existence, beginning in 1956. Highly contested border regions, such as the Abyei region, have fueled the ongoing conflict.
Since 1983 Sudan has been ruled by Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the leader of a small group of Arabs who has reportedly sent death squads to Darfur, collaborated with Osama bin Laden, and been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Although the South has fought for its independence for decades, it only achieved its goal this year with a referendum for secession that passed with 99 percent of voters in the south. This internationally supported referendum solidified the independence of the Republic of South Sudan, which had been partially autonomous since 1995.
The United States, along with the rest of the Western world, should reach out with guidance and support to the fledgling Republic of South Sudan and help maintain her independence. Moreover, in a region where ethnic violence is highly retaliatory, it is important to help the South and North learn not only to exist alongside one another, but also to form a relationship of cooperation. This is especially true because their economies are intertwined and codependent; the South contains about 75 percent of Sudan’s crude oil reserves, while the North has the necessary refineries and pipelines to process and transport the oil. In order to encourage cooperation, the United States should provide an economical incentive for the two countries to invest in each other, for example, by exclusively buying oil which both the North and South helped produce. This should be especially appealing to North Sudan, which is currently faced with heavy economic sanctions by the United States.
For cooperation to emerge, the North must accept the South’s independence as reality. It is unrealistic to believe that the North and South will ever have overly warm relations, especially after the years of fighting and long history of hatred between them. On the other hand, functional neutrality — perhaps with some amiability — is possible if the North and South learn, over time, to trust one another. This will lead to mutual success, and will benefit both nations.
The take home message of Sudan’s experience is an anti-imperialist one. Not only was it unwise for the northern and southern regions of Sudan to be joined as one, but it was fatal for millions of citizens. Forcefully combining African and Arab cultures, where the latter would come to politically suppress the former, was recipe for disaster. Nationalism is a force that cannot be easily acquiesced, a fact that has been observed throughout history. For instance, it was ethnic tensions and nationalism that led to the “powder keg” in the Balkans and ultimately contributed to the outbreak of World War I.
To this day, however, no complete borders dividing the North and South have been defined, resulting in high instability along their interface. Determining the borders of a state is far from simple, and certainly cannot be determined simply by land area or resources. Sudan’s history has shown that ethnic and religious demographics need to be considered, along with security concerns and historical claims to the land; no continent can be arbitrarily carved into pieces.
That is why the Republic of South Sudan needs to be bolstered — because a failure to do so could mean a collapse of the government, regress to chaos and suppression, a likely retaliation from the North, and the continuation of a conflict caused by imposed borders. On a positive note, doing so can help the Republic of South Sudan develop into a staunch democratic ally for the U.S., which should be warmly welcomed considering the radical Islamic ties of nearby countries, including North Sudan. After a long history of suffering and death, then, the Republic of South Sudan is a nation to be celebrated and welcomed by the international community.