Happy Birthday South Sudan – don’t grow up to be Eritrea
The disappointingly named South Sudan proclaimed independence from Sudan today and, on Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly will recognize the new country as the 193rd member of the United Nations. Although there are many of other potentially violent ethnic divisions in both countries, the secession of the Christian and animist south from the Moslem north will largely eliminate the largest source of conflict in the region — a conflict that took more lives than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of violence in the Congo, since the Second World War.
It is exceedingly rare for a new state to “successfully” secede as South Sudan has done. Over the last 50 years, the only countries that have peacefully seceded (excluding overseas colonies or new countries arising from dissolved states) with the consent of their parent country have been Namibia in 1990, Eritrea in 1993, Timor-Leste in 2002, and Montenegro in 2006.
Of these countries, the most similar comparison with the South Sudanese secession is the secession of neighboring Eritrea from Ethiopia. Like the southern Sudanese, Eritrea, whose President called South Sudan’s independence a “mistake,” only gained independence after a decades-long conflict. The independence celebrations in Eritrea, however, only marked the beginning of more tragedy for its people.
After Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, the two countries continued to dispute control over small areas of their common border. By the late nineties, these disputes had escalated to full-scale World War I-style trench warfare between the two countries. The resulting two years of conflict cost tens of thousands of lives, including about 4% of Eritrea’s sparse population.
Similarly, the new border between Sudan and South Sudan is still not agreed upon by both parties, and the areas of contention are both oil-rich and more heavily populated then the tracts of land disputed by Ethiopia and Eritrea. The last six months have been characterized by violent conflicts along the new border in Abyei and within the Nuba mountains, which Sudan’s leader, indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir, vowed this week to “cleanse” of its rebellious elements. For the sake of the South Sudanese people, however, the new leadership of South Sudan must tread carefully – no matter how just the cause of restive populations in these border areas, it is the international community, despite its poor track record in helping resolve past regional disputes, that must take the lead in attempting to diffuse these situations.
After its war with Ethiopia, Eritrea, already one of the poorest countries in the world, spent a decade recovering economically. Politically, it has remained a one-party state without national elections. Last year, Reporters without Borders ranked Eritrea’s “press freedom” as the lowest in the world (it says a lot when your country is ranked below North Korea). U.S. relations with Eritrea remain strained given evidence that the country has also supported Al-Qaeda affiliated movements throughout the region, and the country is considered a diplomatic “pariah” by many.
Eritrea provides a precautionary tale for South Sudan. While it’s unlikely that South Sudan will become another Stalinist-type African state, even aiming for the status of a “typical” central African state characterized by corruption, poverty, and conflict, is setting the bar pretty low.
Countries rarely have a second chance to make up for the mistakes of their founders. Here’s hoping that, assisted by the large amounts of U.S. and other aid being provided, that the new leadership of South Sudan endeavors to build a country built on capable institutions, respect for the rule-of-law, and a prudent foreign policy. In other words, the leadership should consider the path taken by Eritrea, and endeavor to do the opposite.