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It's official

It’s official: in July, Africa’s largest country will split in two and create the world’s newest nation.

Yesterday (Monday) the results of the referendum in south Sudan showed that almost 99 per cent of the territory’s population favoured self-determination. In a television address Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accepted the inevitable, stating: ‘We accept and welcome these results.’ And yet even as the results of January’s poll were being announced in Khartoum, news was emerging that up to 50 soldiers had been killed in a clash along the border between north and south Sudan, highlighting the many obstacles that still lie on the path to partition.

Secession of the predominantly Christian south from the Muslim north will represent the final stage of a peace process that successfully brought to end Africa’s longest war. But as this week’s violence on the border and last month’s fighting in the oil-rich region of Abyei highlight, partition carries with it dangers of a return of instability.

The violence on the border flared when a unit of southern soldiers resisted redeployment to the north and it is unlikely to be the last such incident along the 2,000 kilometre north-south frontier. The fighting in Abyei led to the indefinite postponement of a referendum in that region and ironically served to postpone a potentially explosive source of conflict over oil revenues in the region. But the problem there will not go away.

Even if the status of Abyei remains moot, disputes over Sudan’s substantial oil reserves will arise with the majority of Sudan’s oil reserves in the south, and the facilities for processing, refining and export in the north. Oil revenues are just one aspect of the Sudanese economy that will have to be disentangled. How Sudan’s debilitating $40 billion debt will be divided has yet to be resolved, with the new southern nation not wanting to take on a proportion of debt which will preclude it from IMF and World Bank loans.

Key to averting a slide back to civil war will be international recognition of a newly formed southern Sudan, not just by the United Nations and global powers but, crucially, from the African Union (AU). But with respect for colonial borders being one of the AU’s founding principles and fear among many African leaders that southern Sudanese independence could encourage other secessions across the continent, the African Union’s position on recognition is not yet clear.

In October, Muammar Gaddafi warned that the situation in Sudan ‘could become a contagious disease that affects the whole of Africa’. His concerns are keenly felt in countries such as Senegal, Angola, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo, where separatist groups are currently fighting for autonomy; but they also resonate across a continent where capricious colonial borders have divided tribes and clans for generations. While the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, reluctantly recognized Eritrea after it broke away from Ethiopia in 1993, the AU have not changed their position. Indeed, the AU’s position has been the key obstacle to Somaliland’s bid for international recognition since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991.

The African continent has grounds to be cautious. Recent experience in Europe suggests that a precedent set by one nation can embolden others. Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence without agreement from Serbia or the United Nations may well have encouraged South Ossetia and Abkhazia to break away from Georgia later that same year. The wider international community has also traditionally been reluctant to allow new nations to join its exclusive club. Although 30 new countries have been internationally recognized since 1990, most of them emerged from the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Nevertheless, international recognition will give the war ravaged new state of southern Sudan legitimacy which in turn will increase its chance of achieving security and stability. It would also allow the new nation access to bilateral aid and trade opportunities and a voice on the international political and diplomatic stage.

Southern Sudan’s chances of gaining international recognition are boosted by the fact that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brought Sudan’s second civil war to an end in 2005 had tremendous political investment from the international community.

The AU is a signatory and guarantor of the CPA under whose terms this week’s referendum on self-determination was guaranteed. The US also played an important role in negotiating the CPA; soon after the referendum result was announced, President Obama indicated the US intention to recognize southern Sudan. Less clear is the position of China, a key investor in Sudan and a strong ally of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Ultimately, no matter how unified the position of the international community and how much support they offer, the future of Sudan will be determined by the Sudanese people and their leaders. Voters in the territory have opted overwhelmingly for independence and the formation of a 54th African state will come into being this summer. The international community should act swiftly to offer international recognition. Doing so would provide the new-born state of southern Sudan with the legitimacy it will need as it takes its first shaky steps towards creating a stable and secure democracy in one of the poorest and most volatile places on Earth.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer and freelance journalist who has travelled and written extensively about the region.

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