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South Sudan's Challenge to Africa's Colonial Borders

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
July 7, 2011

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It is too early to tell if south Sudan independence, which becomes official July 9, will inspire a clamor for sovereignty in other fractious sub-Saharan African countries. It will, however, create space for reconsidering Africa's seemingly irrational colonial borders and its opposition to territorial secession. Over time, that might encourage secession movements, but such developments are not likely anytime soon. Absent ethnic and religious pogroms (as in Nigeria's Biafra) or state collapse (the risk in Congo), the elites that benefit from the current state structure will likely keep most African states together for now.

The cardinal principle governing relations among African states has been that boundaries inherited from colonial administrations should remain unchanged. While African elites demanded de-colonization on the basis of the self-determination of peoples, the desire to avoid delay in achieving independence restricted it to within then-existing colonial boundaries. The international community's legal recognition of the sovereignty of the new states within their former colonial boundaries conveyed their legitimacy, especially to the indigenous elites -- heirs of the colonial administrators. The creation of sovereign, independent countries within existing borders also provided new African leaders with reciprocal insurance against territorial aggression.

Accordingly, while there have been boundary disputes and adjustments, no African state has ever formally declared war on another. Instead, African warfare has largely been over control of the state. Examples include the civil wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Congo. No significant territory has seceded successfully from a post-colonial state, either. The most serious attempts -- Katanga's efforts to leave the former Belgian Congo, and Biafra's secession from Nigeria -- both failed and enjoyed little or no support from other African states. The pre-south Sudan exception is Eritrea, which separated from Ethiopia in 1991. But Italians had administered Eritrea apart from Ethiopia when both had been part of their east African empire. Ethiopia absorbed Eritrea after World War II, and the Eritreans argued that their independence from Addis Ababa was itself a form of de-colonization.

African opinion generally has held that the inviolability of national boundaries promotes peaceful resolution of disputes among sovereign states. Among intellectuals the principle of inviolability goes hand in hand with aspirations for a greater sense of common African identity and unity. Recurring proposals for a "United States of Africa" enjoy popular support, if not among the elites who actually wield power and benefit from the current state system. Acknowledging the aspiration for broad African unity, the African Union is all but alone among international organizations in declining to recognize the absolute sovereignty of "nation states", though more in theory than in practice, as its hesitancy to confront Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe about human rights violations shows. But the African Union has been hostile to separatist movements and refuses to recognize the independence of the Republic of Somaliland, even though that small country has functioned remarkably well since 1991 in a very rough neighborhood.

An independent south Sudan challenges these assumptions and aspirations. After a generation of civil war marked by extraordinary levels of violence, south Sudan has won its independence from Sudan with the recognition of the other African states, and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and Juba was godmothered by the United States, Britain, Norway, and Kenya. The colonial Anglo-Egyptian Sudan thus has become two internationally recognized independent states. Unresolved outstanding issues between the two -- their boundary, the nationality of persons born in one half of the country but now living in the other, how to divide petroleum revenues -- have up to now been essentially domestic issues within one country, even if they often involved the international community. With south Sudan's independence, they are issues to be resolved between two sovereign states. That is a new situation for sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps eventually a game-changing one.

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