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Hard Road Ahead for New States

March 2, 2011


The list of 195 independent countries in the world is about to be joined by the 196th — South Sudan. Residents of southern Sudan were nearly unanimous in expressing their desire to secede from the north [“South Sudan poll results overwhelmingly back split,” by Katrina Manson, Financial Times, 30 January 2011]. A hundred years ago there were fewer than 60 recognized states. The fact that the number of states is increasing rather than decreasing should be heartening for conspiracy theorists who fear the formation of a world government. New states form for all sorts of reasons. In the case of South Sudan, religious and cultural differences are significant factors (as is the fact that the south sits on top of oil reserves).


Some analysts believe that precedent being set by the referendum in South Sudan is risky. People naturally have a desire to see their ethnic or religious group have influence in how they are governed and treated. With over 5000 recognized ethnicities around the world, however, forming a new nation for each of them would be both silly and disastrous. That is why it is so important for majorities to treat minorities with respect and sensitivity. Unfortunately, xenophobia seems to be on the rise around the world and that can’t be a good thing.


New nations often form when minorities are so badly treated that the situation becomes intolerable and revolution results — such was the case with both East Timor and Kosovo. But the road to independence in those cases (as in many others) was paved in blood. “When East Timor voted for independence in 1999, militia loyal to the departing Indonesian rulers went on a rampage that took more than 1,000 lives. War engulfed Kosovo in the late 1990s after it said it was splitting from Serbia, and some 10,000 people died. Then, as the grieving and the euphoria quieted, the hard and often divisive work of nation-building began. The struggle continues, more than a decade later.” [“For world’s newest states, road ahead can be hard,” by Christopher Torchia, Associated Press, 15 January 2011]. Torchia continues:

“Southern Sudan … will become the latest land to grasp statehood in the wake of violent upheaval. How well will it work? A half-century ago, the world had dozens of examples to study as countries around the globe won their independence from European colonial powers. But today the addition of a new country to the world map is something unusual. So while comparisons can only be imprecise, the first steps of East Timor and Kosovo offer some guidance about the challenges facing the battered yet exultant people of Southern Sudan.”

Although I can’t deny that the road ahead for South Sudan is going to be difficult and probably bloody, there are a lot more organizations and academics available today to help them make a go of it than there were half a century ago when former colonies were gaining their independence. Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic interviewed by Torchia, told him, “The expectations of independence are always very high. … The first few years are almost always pretty shaky.” That is why selecting the right leadership is so critical to success. Torchia continues:

“What makes a nation, if institutions and infrastructure are poorly equipped to handle the responsibilities of statehood in places where borders were drawn by long-gone empires[?] In Southern Sudan, the symbol of secession, a hand with an open palm, was not just on the ballot slips; it festoons walls, vehicles and T-shirts, an indicator of enthusiasm for breaking with the north after a 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war. If Sudan splits, the burdens of state that await the south will entail border demarcation, citizenship, security, education, law and accountability, and of oil and cattle-grazing rights in one of the world’s poorest regions.”

Some of those challenges are clearly internal challenges for a new government; however, challenges like border demarcation (and, in South Sudan’s case, revenue sharing with the north) are matters that involve more than one state. Torchia explains that South Sudan might catch a break on that front. He explains:

“One big plus is the promise of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose base is the mostly Muslim north, that he will accept the referendum results, where most people are Christian or animist. If the pledge is honored, and African states lead the way toward international recognition, a huge hurdle will have been overcome. But it could take a long time, as Kosovo has learned. Since declaring independence in 2008 with Western support, it has been recognized by well under half the U.N. membership.”

The world seems solidly behind South Sudan’s separatist actions, but the same can’t be said for other separatist movements around the globe. Torchia describes a few of them:

“Spain faces Basque and Catalan separatism. Russia has Chechnya, China has Tibet, India has Kashmir. For a country like Kosovo, ‘It leaves you in international limbo,’ said Tim Judah, author of two books about the new country of 1.8 million. ‘You’re not a state among equals.’ In East Timor’s case, Indonesia, emerging from a long dictatorship, agreed under pressure to a U.N.-backed referendum in the former Portuguese colony that it had invaded and occupied in 1975. After East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to separate, the rampage condoned by Indonesia destroyed much of the territory’s limited infrastructure. ‘We are going to start from below zero,’ Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who is now president of East Timor, said at the time. The U.N. launched one of the most expensive nation-building projects in history but still drew criticism for scaling back too early. The country declared independence in 2002 in an ecstatic show of music and fireworks, but factional violence erupted four years later, forcing international peacekeepers to patrol the streets once again.”

In an earlier post, I quoted the Financial Time‘s Martin Wolf who reminds us that there are some challenges “where zero-sum outcomes are more likely” — namely, natural resources and political power. If you can find a peaceful way to handle zero-sum challenges, the rest of the challenges pale in comparison. As I noted above, it all starts with the right leadership and even good leadership needs a lot of outside help. Torchia continues:

“Southern Sudan, whose estimated population ranges between 7.5 million and 9.7 million, suffered the vast majority of deaths in the civil war — some 2 million, many from disease and famine. Since the 2005 deal is has prepared to some extent for statehood, but its autonomous institutions are weak and there are concerns that its own ethnic groups will compete for power and resources. Actor George Clooney’s campaigning may have raised Sudan’s profile, but any hope of long-term success would require many years of heavy international involvement. ‘If you think that intervention, or a referendum, is all it takes, you’re sorely mistaken,’ said David Phillips, a former U.S. State Department official who has worked on post-conflict transitions in Sudan, East Timor and Kosovo. ‘These countries need a lot of help with state-building and to become economically viable.’ Phillips warned that new countries with weak governance are prone to corruption, especially if they benefit from the windfall of newly acquired resources. Most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south, which would be dependent on the north for export routes.”

What worries most analysts about South Sudan is that once the euphoria wears off, internal struggles are likely to begin. Professor Hurst Hannum, an international law expert at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, told Torchia, “What so often happens, once independence is achieved, (is that) all of the conflicts that existed below the surface, and were put aside so you can fight a common enemy, then have a tendency to come out. … These states are, after all, artificial.” If new nations are going to succeed, they need to attract investment capital. As a Wall Street Journal article recently noted, “Lawless states don’t attract capital.” A number of people have offered prescriptions for dealing with failed states (for example, see my posts entitled Dealing with Failed States and More on Dealing with Failed States). Working with states before they fail, as difficult and expensive as that can be, is less difficult and less expensive than dealing them after they fail. If you want to see where the international community is going to be forced to give its attention, look at the Foreign Policy magazine’s annual Failed States Index. The link takes you to a great interactive map. Making the list doesn’t condemn a state to become a permanent ward of the international community (but almost). In commenting on this year’s Index, the Foreign Policy staff concluded:

“Given time and the right circumstances, countries do recover. Sierra Leone and Liberia, for instance, no longer rank among the top 20 failing states, and Colombia has become a stunning success story. Few remember today that the Dominican Republic once vied with its neighbor Haiti for the title of ‘worst Caribbean basket case.’ But the overall story of the Failed States Index is one of wearying constancy, and 2010 is proving to be no different: Crises in Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, and Nigeria — among others — threaten to push those unstable countries to the breaking point.”

South Sudan probably couldn’t have picked a worst moment in history to become an independent state. Unrest and instability now clouds the future of much of northern Africa and the Middle East and the developed world is still struggling to release itself from the grip of recession. On the positive side, there are a number of nations that desire to see South Sudan succeed — China among them. East African states would like to develop a supply route for South Sudanese oil in order to bolster their economies and provide South Sudan with an alternative to having to ship all of its oil through Sudan to get it to market. The huge investment required for such a pipeline will only be forthcoming if South Sudan manages a peaceful transition to statehood.

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