THE SPINE JANUARY 10, 2011
Perhaps it was fated that Sudan, possibly the most preposterous of African states and certainly among the most murderous members of the United Nations, should after two wars waged against populations imprisoned within its borders be the first to actually break up. Of course, it depends on two uncertain circumstances. The first is that secession wins the vote in the south. The second depends on whether Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan who is under indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, would allow the choice of independence to stand. Frankly, I doubt it.
But Jimmy Carter, who almost comically always sees hope in dread circumstances, announced today that al-Bashir has promised him that Sudan would pay Southern Sudan’s share of the national debt. If you believe this you’ll believe all of Carter’s characteristic nonsense.
It is important to understand the differences between the two wars Muslim Arab Sudan has pursued against other groups in the country. In Southern Sudan the war was fought against some five million Christians, many of them Roman Catholic, and animists of the Dinka, Nuer and Balanda tribes. Two million people were said to have died in this conflict. An edgy truce has held there for five years, and now is the moment of decision.
In Darfur, the victims of the Arabs were mostly other Muslims but from non-Arab tribes. Whatever happens in the south will leave Darfur and Darfurians still in peril.
The nightmare that faces almost all of the African states is that very few of them consist of one integral people. In fact, I don’t recall one of them. But identity is an important factor in the lives of most Africans and these identities divide and sever. In the early sixties, when I studied African nationalism with Rupert Emerson at Harvard, we concentrated on the aggression the European colonial powers had committed against the indigenous populations, and of that there was plenty. What we did not pay much attention to were the internecine conflicts among the ethnic, tribal and religious groups of the states that emerged from the colonies, mostly with suspicious, almost tell-tale geographically regular territories. Straight lines is what I mean.
Bennett Ramberg has just published an insightful piece about the ups and downs of certain nationalisms in Europe and Asia. The successful ones had split up, like Sweden and Norway, Singapore and Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to say nothing of the split-aways from the Soviet Union. Belgium, which is an exception to this rule with its Flemish and Walloon populations in not quite mortal conflict, is not a coherent state. Were it not for the European Union seated in Brussels Belgium with its pert monarchy would long ago have disappeared. Its decline started when the Congo, which the king himself had owned, became independent. It is now two states.
Here, in a nutshell, is Ramberg’s argument:
Given the consequences of troubled unions, why not voluntary separation? Consider the fatal costs of civil wars to retain national unions: Biafra, 1 million or more. Chechnya, 200,000. Yugoslavia, 260,000. Kashmir, 60,000. Sri Lanka, 70,000 and so on. Can anything justify such consquences?
Like all divorce, state break ups generate downsides such as the loss of common infrastructure — ports, water works, power plants and roads. Enormous compensatory costs follow. But like a bad marriage, the economic benefits of state togetherness cannot compensate for the emotional pains and/or abuse and, too often, civil bloodshed.
Ramberg’s last article in TNR was about Israel’s nuclear weapons.