Of the many remnants of the colonial experience in Africa, perhaps the most heavily debated is the issue of national boundaries. Debates about the validity of these borders, drawn by the European colonists, have raged.
However, despite intense arguments for the redrawing of the borders, the colonial boundaries have endured. The Organization of Africa’s Unity (OAU) the precursor to the African Union (AU) reasoned that while African border were artificial, fixing them might lead to unnecessary conflict. Thus Africa headed to independence with its colonial borders intact.
An issue that flows from these colonial borders is secession. In contemporary Africa, when we mention secession, the first country that springs to mind is Sudan. However, secession in Africa has a long history. Several countries have experienced attempts at secession by various groups and ethnicities since the time of independence.
While attempts in the northern part of Kenya, the Katanga region of Congo, and the Biafra secession in Nigeria were unsuccessful, Eritrea’s efforts to secede from Ethiopia were a success. South Sudan’s secession, should be considered within the larger context of attempted secession in Africa, and looked at in light of Eritrea’s previous success.
The three unsuccessful secession attempts, all occurred during the early decades of independence. During this time, the patriotism was high in newly independent countries. Unity and nationalism had strong resonance with the general population who had fought hard for their independence. Therefore, secession did not enjoy broad appeal.
Further, the Cold War was at its height and Western countries were not keen on allowing attempts at secession, fearing that a further clamor for independence would open the door to Communism.
The story of Eritrea is different. Eritrea’s secession occurred later, towards the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the USSR, the Ethiopian government lost their large supply of military weapons. Additionally, by now, people were less in awe of their governments because most post-independence promises had never been realized.
The Eritrean secessionists took advantage of the weakened Ethiopian military and tapped into this disenchantment. Further, historically, Eritrea was not part of the Ethiopian empire. They had been joined later, as the result of the hurriedly drawn exit strategy of the British and French in the Horn Africa.
The 30 year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea had exacted a high price in lives, health and infrastructure. It is estimated that Eritrea had about 60,000 deaths, 60,000 disabled and approximately 50,000 abandoned children during this conflict.
Two years after the end of the war, through a UN organized referendum, an overwhelming 99.8% of Eritreans voted for separation from Ethiopia. This was welcomed with huge relief and high expectations by the Eritreans.
However, the Eritrean regime led by Isaiah’s Afewerqi dashed these expectations by turning this tiny Horn of Africa state into an open prison. Afewerqi was part of the secessionist movement and took power without an election. Since assuming power, Afeweqi has turned Eritrea into the North Korea of Africa by locking them virtually away from the rest of the world.
In Eritrea, all secondary school students have to complete their final year of school in a military camp. This is on top of serving a mandatory 18 months of national service, extended in 2003 for both male and females. Any attempt to run from this into exile is brutally punished, with culpability extending beyond the attempted exile(s) to the members of the family.
In Eritrea, as with any authoritarian regime, there are no alternative political parties. Furthermore, any contrary opinion to that of the regime is harshly reprimanded as evidenced by the government crackdown on the independent press and the flagrant arrest of journalists. The only time Eritrea hits the news headlines is when an international human rights organization releases a report — Eritrea consistently scores poorly. Certainly while living under Ethiopia’s government was tyrannical, having Afewerqi is not what Eritreans fought and lost their lives for.
Ten years after Eritrea defeated the Ethiopian army a similar scenario played out in Sudan. South Sudanese voted by over 90 % of the votes, to secede from Sudan. This came after two decades of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement and the Khartoum regime. While this conflict was conveniently cast in simplistic terms as a war between the Muslims/Arabs in the North and the Christians/Africans in the South, at the heart of the war was a peoples’ demand to govern their affairs independently
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA,) which was negotiated and signed in 2005 in Kenya, brought to an end to the war. During the conflict over two million people were killed and countless others were wounded. Additionally, the war had a devastating impact on Sudan’s infrastructure.
A key term of the peace agreement was this year’s referendum, in which Southern Sudan determined they wanted independence from the rest of the country. While the peaceful manner in which the referendum was conducted was laudable, there are many issues that remain.
The fear of a military dictatorship that became Eritrea’s reality should never be overlooked, but at the moment there are two more pressing issues that, if not handled with diplomatic finesse and political prudence will have huge consequences on the relations between the new South Sudan and the Khartoum regime.
First, there is the fate the Dinka and the Misseriya. These two nomadic ethnic groups cross from North to South in search of pastures and water for their livestock. Second, there is the status of the oil rich Abyei region. It would be to sweep these two issues under the carpet during these initial stages of secession.
The nomadic groups currently have different interests. While Dinka identify with South Sudan, the Misseriya identify with the North. However, like most pastoarlist communities in Africa, they have little regard for political borders. It is unclear where this will lead but it desperately needs to be addressed.
On the second issue, Eritrea’s experience is telling. Long after Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, they fought bloody war in 1998-2000 over a rocky piece of land called Badme leading to 100,000 deaths. The war occurred because ownership of Badme was never clearly demarcated. Currently the Abyei region has not been clearly demarcated either, and may become the Badme of Sudan. That it is oil rich only intensifies the desire of both North and South to claim it as their own.
Tellingly, last week the Khartoum government stormed and Abyei leading to the displacement of 400, 000 people, according to aid agencies. This is a poignant reminder that the guns might be silent, the fighting may have stopped, but tension and suspicion runs deep.
Additionally, as Eritrea has shown, not all secession leads to the emergence of democratic state. South Sudan faces an odious challenge of building back the infrastructure that was battered during the war as well as building a functioning state. In the absence of political institutions and confronted with limited trained human resources, this, among other things, will be a challenge.