Friday 7 January 2011

7 January 2011

The trumpets will sound; the drums will beat; the flags will flutter proudly. After a referendum to be held on Sunday, a new nation will be born on the continent of Africa – and great will be the rejoicing.

Well, I’m sorry, but maybe not so fast. For the people of southern Sudan, yes, after decades of war and hardship, it will indeed seem that there is much to celebrate. They have fought long and hard for their independence, and they will be sure that they have earned the right to celebrate.

But my task this weekend is to draw your attention to a few other recent occasions when people celebrated the birth of new nations – and to ask whether perhaps some of their celebrations were just a tad premature.

You may be surprised to learn that over the past 20 years, more than 30 new nations have appeared on the face of the globe. Nearly half of them emerged from the wreckage that used to be the Soviet Union (all the way, alphabetically if not geographically, from Armenia to Uzbekistan).

Seven have emerged from the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia).

There’s also Namibia, which broke away from South Africa in 1990; the Czech Republic and Slovakia which went their separate ways in 1993; and Eritrea, which split from Ethiopia, also in 1993. More recently, East Timor (Timor-Leste) won its independence in 2002, after 27 years of Indonesian occupation – and of course Kosovo declared itself independent of Serbia in 2008.

Some of these countries are doing well enough: Namibia, Slovenia, the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. But others – Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo – are not (yet?) great success stories.

So the people of Southern Sudan would be wise to be cautious. There is, admittedly, no good reason why the lines drawn on a map by 19th century British colonialists should be set in stone – yet the landlocked south will need more than its fair share of good luck to become a viable independent state.

Its substantial oil reserves could turn out to be a curse as much as a blessing. There are likely to be months of bitter arguments over how to divide up the revenues from oil sales; and the north will want generous terms in return for allowing the oil to travel through its territory in the already existing pipelines.

But the people of the north (mainly Muslim) and the people of the south (mainly Christian) have never had much in common – and what unites them now is a shared wish not to return to war. That, at least, is a positive sign.

Until very recently, there were real doubts whether this referendum would be held on schedule. President Omar el-Bashir was thought to be deeply reluctant to authorise a poll that he knew would result in secession. And when he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in connection with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur, it seemed he had little incentive to bow to the will of the West.

But US diplomats have been heavily engaged in Sudan for several months now; and if the referendum goes well – and if the secession of the South takes place without major problems – Washington will have good reason to be pleased.

Some commentators have taken to referrring to Sudan as “Obama’s Rwanda”, a reference to Bill Clinton’s known regret that he didn’t do more to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Remember, Sudan is the biggest country in Africa. It’s of major strategic importance and is a key trading partner for China. Its president is the only serving head of state ever to have been indicted as a war criminal.

The stakes on Sunday are high. The omens are a lot better than they looked just a matter of months ago. But there are still many hurdles to be surmounted before the new nation of Southern Sudan can confidently take its place as the newest kid on the United Nations block.