Sudanese Secession: Political Lessons from an Emerging Nation
By Erin Kaplan, January 28, 2011
The week long vote on a historic referendum for Southern Sudanese independence ended January 15th. Although the final results won’t be announced until February 14, the outcome is no longer in doubt: All indications are that the electorate turned out in force all across East Africa, with some estimates putting turnout above 95%, and voted overwhelmingly, again likely higher than 90%, in favor of independence. Though the international community had been making preparations for the vote since 2009, the election, which lasted a full week, went more smoothly than anyone could have predicted.
There are undoubtedly many tough decisions ahead on both sides of the new border, but thus far leaders of the soon-to-be separate countries have shown remarkable goodwill toward their counterparts. In comments during a church service on January 16, the Southern Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, called for forgiveness for the some two million casualties of the North-South conflict. The more infamous Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, appears to be looking forward as well. Multiple Sudanese papers are reporting that al - Bashir is focused on restructuring the government in the North: reducing the number of government ministries and privatizing some of the currently state-owned industries.
The success of the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence raises the question, could other ethnically divided, conflict‐ridden countries benefit from a similar process? There is no disputing the fact that much of the conflict in developing world is symptomatic of poorly drawn colonial‐era borders. So why have political leaders continued to embrace arbitrary boundaries that were drawn half a world away? Until now the answer has been, for the sake of stability.
The primary goal of most African nations in the post‐colonial period has been to foster stability. Since 1980 more than half of the 54 African nations have experienced civil war. It is thus not surprising that powerful, though many times cruel and self‐interested, dictatorships were often welcomed with open arms to replace decades of civil unrest, uncertainty, and violent conflict. Even Botswana and South Africa, two countries often touted as representing the triumph of democracy on the African continent, have only managed to support one viable ruling party.
With the primary goal of stability accomplished in all but a handful of countries, African nations must now turn their attention toward the pitfalls of permanence in political regimes, whether they legitimately elected or not. Even die‐hard democracy proponents recognize the potential, in such cases, for "tyranny of the majority" – where the political party, or ethnic group, in power favors its own interests, neglecting the wants and needs of the minority.
There are different methods of dealing with this potential pitfall, including proportional representation in the legislature, the protection of individual rights in the constitution, and a strong judicial system to judge the fairness of policy and prosecute corrupt officials. Though optional secession is often overlooked as a method of balancing the power between ethnic or political groups, in Africa where countries were slapped together somewhat haphazardly in the first place, it may prove to be a reasonable mechanism to facilitate transfers of power or natural resource wealth.
Theoretically, the option to secede enhances political equality in a democracy even if it is never exercised. Suppose that within a country there exists a majority group which controls the ruling political party and some disgruntled minority group that would pursue independence if given the opportunity. Allowing the minority group the option to secede will force the majority group to respond either by accommodating the needs of the minority, or recognizing their right to independence. If the majority values the unity of the country (in other words, if the whole is more than the sum of its parts) the ruling party will have an incentive to give equal treatment to the political desires of the minority in order to preserve the union. If, however, the majority is not willing to make large enough concessions to appease the minority, the socially optimal outcome is for the two groups to part ways. In this case, the inevitable split of the two incompatible states will be less costly to all if it is pursued at the ballot box rather than the battle field.
Some people will argue that larger countries or regions of economic integration will prosper more than small segregated economies. Although both theoretically and empirically true, this is less of an argument against secession and more of one in favor of international economic integration. Much as Europe has fostered a strong region of unregulated trade, the African Union works to undo protectionist policies as well as promote international trade and economic unity between African nations. Trade liberalization within the African continent is clearly in the economic interest of all involved, but will not necessarily be a casualty of introducing secession rights.
Policy makers ought not to fear the possibility of democratic secession in cases where other methods have failed to bring political equality to a struggling democracy. On the contrary, the rational approach to the possibility of the disintegration of African nation states that is now playing out in The Sudan may, in fact, be a rare beacon of hope for democracy and development on the continent.