Sudan's Split: A consequence of US interests
Jan 9, 2011

Sudan's Split: A consequence of US interests

As Sudan's southern voters hold a referendum to split the country in two, we should pause to consider the factors that led to this event. This event should be praised for - despite the difficulties that exist - it should give self determination to an oppressed people. At the same time, however, this is an event that has been strongly influenced by US actions at least partially because it strongly benefits the US and its interests.

An independent southern Sudan works well with US interests in at least three ways. The largest of these is of course oil, which predominantly is in the south. While initially pipelines through the north are required, there is already discussion of pipelines to US allies in the south east.

The north of Sudan is a largely Muslim region while the south is largely Christian (and animist, as is often forgotten). That it is a Christian nation gaining independence from an oppressive Muslim nation shouldn't be a direct interest, yet asymmetrically in the world the west gives more attention to such things. The celebrity interest in Darfur, for example, compared to other regions is perhaps indicative of this although certainly the appalling genocide that existed would be reason enough to stand in solidarity with them. Naturally, violence has gone both ways.

Additionally, the south has strong cultural ties - and more importantly strong military ties - with the US backed countries of Ethiopia and Uganda. The US heavily supports these groups militarily in particular through financing African Union interventions in Somalia after the US pulled out in the 90s. An independent southern Sudan buttresses a now larger group of majority Christian nations against the Islamic world with common military ties - all backed by the US - and full of that most precious of commodities: oil. It is no small surprise in this case that US influence in the last half decade at least as been centered around moving towards southern independence.

A division of this size is of historic importance for Africa. Africa has enormous divisions within many countries and tribalism (along ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural lines) is among its worst hindering blocks to development. There has been an acknowledgement, partially correct I think, that allowing for the countries as they are today with the boarders they have to excessively fragment would be detrimental as it creates huge numbers of micro countries to reflect the diversity of nations within Africa. As such, pan African bodies for 60 years have been strongly in support of retaining, more or less, the established colonial borders and trying to encourage peaceful nationalism within these borders and the states that go with them. This position has been supported by the west and the break up of Sudan offers something of an opening of the box to the possibility of further division in other places in Africa. As I have discussed, the balance between wanting to give self determination to nations and not endlessly fragment the continent is a difficult balance to achieve.

It is worth noting that the story today in Sudan reflects the tragic nature of so much of Africa and the Middle East of having very artificial borders placed on them through the result of colonial powers.  In Sudan's case, it was the British who established much of the borders in their contests with France and Belgium, and who ran the country as two different regions for various reasons including spreading Christianity in the south and protecting against Islam in the north. That Sudan could not come together as a pluralistic society and had the history of horrific violence and civil war that it did, hopefully culminating in this separation, partially reflects that artificial division. The story is echoed in country after country where borders and states were applied not based on reflecting the nations of the people who lived there, but of the interests and limits to imperial expansion by colonial powers.

Ultimately, the move is a beneficial one and I hope for the best for the Sudanese people on both sides for their fate is not yet certain. However, to act out of self interest and not out of benevolence does not deserve moral praise. This history of imperialism - first from the Europeans that set the stage and lately from the Americans - is important to understand the influences that explain why it is Sudan that is breaking up and not all of the other oppressed nations around the world who still lack self determination.

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