South Sudan – the new African Pakistan?

In a blog entry I wrote last year (see July 2011), I wished South Sudan a happy birthday on the day it became the world’s newest country. I warned, however, that it might become a modern-day version of Eritrea, which, upon gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, embarked on a pattern of brinkmanship and eventually war with its former “colonizer.”  I thought I would write a blog about South Sudan a year later assessing its progress, but the country’s leadership hasn’t even made it even ten months without screwing everything up.

The separation of South Sudan from Sudan has been a messy divorce.  Each country has witnessed major violence within its borders.  South Sudan witnessed over 600 deaths in a tribal massacre last year.  Sudan, for its part has had to contend with restless “trapped” minorities, particularly its Nuba population, on the border with South Sudan. George Clooney was actually arrested several months ago protesting Sudan’s heavy-handed approach to these groups.

Almost since independence, however, South Sudan has continued to encourage violence along the now-international border.  It has encouraged and supplied Nuban militants and most recently moved its regularly army into the oil rich border region of Heglig, only to be driven back by Sudanese troops.  The clashes have led to the escalation of tensions across much of the border and the leader of Sudan, indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir has made characteristic threats of liberating South Sudan and cleansing Sudan’s border regions.

It’s a mess, but it was a predictable mess.  Conflicts between countries occur when disputes involving resources and nationalism dovetail with the leaders who calculate the value of seeking unity and popularity at home through the forceful confrontation of a foreign enemy.   Leaders promote themselves by painting one-dimensional pictures of evil adversaries that become engrained as cultural understandings within the populace, who then constrict the range of negotiating options available to leaders in future conflicts.  Long-term rivalries evolve that become more and more intractable.

As such, what’s happening between Sudan and South Sudan reminds me as much of an African version of the India-Pakistan rivalry as the events leading to war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the nineties.  India and Pakistan, two similar ethnically diverse countries, were partitioned in 1947 leaving similarly ‘trapped” minorities on each side of the border.  Instability and violence ensued leaving millions dead and the legacy of Kashmir, a territory within India that Pakistan claims to this day and which has spawned multiple wars.

Like Pakistani nationalism, South Sudanese nationalism is developing along two lines. The first influence involves religion.  In the Pakistani case, Islam served as the unifying basis of nationalism among its diverse population vis-à-vis the infidel Indian state.  In South Sudan the religious picture is much more diverse, but it is clear that a “not-Muslim” identity is a unifying force among the diverse animist and Christian peoples of the state.  Leaders in both countries seek to divert attention from internal divisions by emphasizes the commonalities in religious affiliation among their populations while emphasizing differences with rivals.

Second, the South Sudanese, like the Pakistanis feel aggrieved about and sympathy for the groups that were not included in their new state.  In my own book, I write about how irredentism is perhaps the most destabilizing force in international relations and most likely source of interstate conflict.

Fortunately, South Sudan and Sudan are unlike Pakistan and India in one key way — neither is particularly strong and each relies heavily on the international community.  Through the United Nations and important partners like China and the United States, strong pressure can be brought on each country to help prevent further escalation of disputes and reach negotiated settlements on the some of the more tractable border issues.

Ultimately, however, the leaders of each country are going to have to decide for themselves whether they want to continue to spend resources and lives defending self-created and self-defeating nationalist goals or whether they want to avoid the path of failed states and pursue a path of development.  South Sudan will likely avoid the full-scale conflict and destruction that Eritrea found itself involved in after its independence, but the real question is whether it will grow up to be the African version of Pakistan – a country that fails to address its problems because of its perpetual obsession with what it doesn’t have rather than what it can be.

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Posted on April 30, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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