Voters in the January referendum in Southern Sudan overwhelmingly endorsed secession for that region with the new state scheduled to come into existence on July 9th this year.  The vote, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, and the violence that led to that settlement have been well covered by journalists and analysts, but I have seen relatively little commentary on the actual process of achieving independence. That process involves establishing borders, resettling people, and dividing assets.  How these issues are resolved has implications for all of Africa.


In every case of secession or the division of a country that I can think of, border conflicts have complicated the process. While it seems clear that the general demarcation between Sudan and Southern Sudan[1] is agreed on, two possible points of contention remain.  First, the oil-rich Abyei area will hold a separate vote to determine whether it remains a part of Sudan or joins Southern Sudan. Could this become a contentious issue?  Second, even though the broad border questions may have been settled, is there still the possibility of clashes over specific local boundaries?


Creating a new state is not just a matter of dividing territory but also one of dividing people.  When colonial India was partitioned, millions of Muslims and Hindus found themselves on “the wrong side” of the borders of the new India and Pakistan.  Millions of people moved in order to be on the correct side of the new boundaries.  That movement cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some population movement occurred before the vote last month but a look at an ethnic map of the area reveals pockets of Arabs in Southern Sudan.[2] Will they move north to be within the predominately Arab Sudan?  Will others in the North move to the South?

A “misplaced” population raises another issue faced in the former Soviet Union twenty years ago. When the fourteen non-Russian republics gained independence large numbers of ethnic Russians found themselves to be minorities in states largely defined in terms of other nationalities.  If the Southern Sudanese Arabs remain where they are they become a significant minority in the new state.  What provisions have been made to protect them in a non-Arab system?


Dividing a country is a political divorce and, as in a domestic divorce, assets must be divided. Assets involve both finances and physical property.  How is the national treasury to be allocated?  Physical assets include everything from military equipment to office furniture and paperclips.  When Guinea gained its independence from France, colonial officials reportedly ripped telephones of the walls as they departed. Are there dimensions of the assets issue still to be negotiated?

One possible issue is oil, Southern Sudan’s most valuable asset.  A look at another map reveals that the oil fields straddle the proposed borders.[3] Has an oil extraction agreement been reached?  The answer is significant in that Kuwait’s alleged slant drilling into a field on its border with Iraq was one of Iraq’s complaints against its smaller neighbor twenty years ago.

The question of assets also involves a converse question – obligations.  Every state has international debts, obligations, and other contractual agreements.  Who will assume these responsibilities and how will the other parties to those arrangements react?

Southern Sudan’s secession raises a broader and more important question for the entire continent.  Just before the referendum the BBC addressed this concern in an article titled “Will Sudan split set an African precedent?”[4] For fifty years African political leaders have agreed that the arbitrary borders created by the colonial powers would not be altered. They believed that any proposed changes would be more contentious than the effort was worth. Will popular pressure force a discussion of border adjustments or secession elsewhere in Africa?

Southern Sudanese independence is a perfect case study of state creation and development.  This essay raises but does not answer significant questions associated with the birth of a new state.  I have observed or studied many other examples of that birthing process where these issues have come into play but I have no particular expertise with respect to Southern Sudan.  I would like to hear from others who are more familiar with this area.  Have these problems been resolved? Are there others which I have failed to mention?


1.  Southern Sudan will be the name of the new state.

2  See “Ethnic Groups,” Web: 16 February 2011.

3   See “Oil Fields,” Web: 16 January 2011

4  “Will Sudan split set an African precedent?” Web 16 January 2011. The two previous citations are specific links to parts of this article.