The people of South Sudan have spoken: by an overwhelming margin, they have voted to secede from Sudan and form a new nation, with Juba as its capital.
The official voting tally is anti-climactic; the results were expected (though the 98% tally in favor of withdrawal does seem incredibly high). Yet there’s no mystery why the people of South Sudan wish self-determination and direct and total self-governance. The mystery is how self-governance will be realized.
The implications for other marginalized sub-national regions in sub-Saharan Africa are immense. Conflicts within African states are widespread and chronic. Federalism — and other variations of power-sharing within a unitary state — are ever attractive options. Seccession should only be viewed as a last resort. In Juba, the work of building a new country is already underway; the effectiveness of these labors will take months, years, and perhaps even decades to evaluate fully and clearly. But before too long, the example of South Sudan will be studied closely by aggrieved sub-national minorities and regions in Africa — for clues about how these marginalized peoples can better advance their own legitimate interests. The mere possibility of secession should focus the minds and hearts of many leaders in Africa. For they now have a golden opportunity to make the best case for holding their own nation-states together. Secession never occurs in a vacuum. The Khartoum government repeatedly failed the people of South Sudan. In the great capitals of Africa — from Dakar and Abidjan to Lusaka and Kampala — leaders face momentous choices about how to provide a more inclusive government to all of its people, so that the forces promoting break-up of nation-states lose momentum.
Failure to satisfy sub-national demands is inevitable. Not all grievances merit an institutional remedy. But the center of African politics risks unleashing a parade of secessionist demands — and stream of new nations — if the case for the superiority of national unity is not made through improvements in the lives of people. National unity is not a religious article of faith, but rather is an existential condition. Nations are constructed and, even in Africa, can be deconstructed if they cannot meet the reasonable needs of reasonable people in their domain. To echo Basil Davidson, African nationalism can be a curse. Secession is itself no panacea if it the act of withdrawal merely lays down a new curse of nationalism.