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I am currently reading Kwasi Kwarteng’s fascinating and exhaustive book, Ghosts of Empire, which examines the British Empire’s role in several very different former colonies such as Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Kashmir, Burma and even Hong Kong. One of Kwarteng’s central themes is how the paths of these nations were influenced not only by British ideals and values, but also those of the powerful colonial administrators who governed them.
He also documents how the British class system was applied to the colonies and how administrators worked with native elites to run their colonies. This is an interesting idea and a more nuanced way of considering the conventional wisdom that ex-British colonies have fared better than former French colonies, and much better than those formerly ruled by the Portuguese, who controlled colonial administration more tightly with less native involvement. This is well-trodden ground. Yet, it made me think about nations that develop more organically and are not constructs of a colonial system. Can a nation lacking a deep colonial past achieve prosperity and maintain peace more or less easily than those with such a heritage?
On July 9, the world’s newest state, South Sudan, marked one year of independence. As the name indicates, South Sudan was carved out of the southern fourth of the Republic of the Sudan. South Sudan is located south of the fork where the White Nile and Blue Nile converge into the Nile River before snaking more than 2000 miles more through Sudan and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. In short, South Sudan is located in the heart of East Africa and, as far as most Westerners are concerned, in the middle of nowhere. It is also one of the poorest nations in the world.
Though it was nominally administered by the British for nearly sixty years, it wasn’t colonized by European settlers. The extent of British activity involved trying to keep Muslims in the north from expanding southward. The so-called “Southern Policy” viewed southern Sudan as a bulwark against Islamic expansion, but little else. Though it was unprepared for independence after World War II, the British simply kept it part of Sudan when independence came on New Years Day 1956.
Forged in War and Bathed in Blood. That’s how I summarize the path of so many developing nations that gained independence in the twentieth century. South Sudan is no different. Its war for independence from Sudan lasted longer than most. I count close to forty-nine years of conflict with their Muslim neighbors to the north; at a cost of 2 to 3 million lives. Most of Africa had to earn independence from a European power.
European empires weren’t built along tribal, religious, ethnic, linguistic or any other human classification you can imagine. They were created based on whose explorers and traders – and inevitably – whose military arrived first. After the initial scramble more or less set the boundaries of colonial Africa, while the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 tied up the loose ends and divided up what was left. As a result, most African independence movements are rooted in a shared struggle (peaceful or violent) against a foreign master, or in the case of the more vicious wars, against a sizable European settler population as occurred in Portuguese East and West Africa (now Mozambique and Angola), British East Africa (now Kenya), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Algeria. No wonder the guns turned on each other once a new, colorful flag replaced the Union Jack, French tri-color or the five shields of Portugal.
The tribes of South Sudan banded together to fight the Khartoum government based on a shared religious (animist and Christians) and ethnic (non-Arab Nilotic tribes) basis in addition to shared enmity for the Arab-dominated government of Sudan. There have been other attempts to build nations out of the artificial borders of post-colonial states (e.g. Biafra in Nigeria, Katanga in Congo-Kinshasa) that failed. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s but the area had previously been an Italian colony. It’s unique in Africa in that its war for independence was waged against the Sudanese, not colonial overlords from another continent.
Why does its success matter to the world and particularly the developing world? I think South Sudan is a critical test case and template for other underdeveloped nations because it lacks much of the baggage that hampered the progress of its continental neighbors.
South Sudan is the first African nation to successfully win independence absent a European colonial heritage. I believe this lack of a colonial hangover could be a constructive unifier for the country. The legacy of colonialism has been trotted out by many dictators as a scapegoat for the sundry woes their nations face. South Sudan lacks this excuse and hopefully will be forced to face the immense challenges ahead without looking to the past to assign blame. It has tabula rasa to build a stable, representative democracy, and sensible economic policy free of the ghosts of colonialism.
I am not naïve and realize the widespread poverty will be incredibly difficult to overcome. South Sudan lacks an industrial base, has very little infrastructure, but it does have plenty of natural resources, including oil; though at present a pipeline dispute with Sudan threatens to destabilize the development of its oil industry. Its largely unspoiled landscape combined with bountiful wildlife offers it a chance to emulate the eco-tourism successes in Kenya, Botswana, Belize, Costa Rica and other tropical nations.
Its future progress promises to be interesting. If political stability and economic growth can be attained, it could embolden other disenfranchised minority groups to try to redraw their own borders created by Europeans. We could see other, smaller, and more homogeneous nations emerge as these groups push hard for a second independence, an independence not from colonialism but colonialism’s aftermath. I am not sure what failure means. It could weaken the argument that ill-conceived nations based on colonial boundaries are a root of the chronic instability in the developing world and particularly Africa. Either way, the region has much at stake in the success of this infant republic.
Newer news items:
- S.Sudan accuses Sudan of bombing its territory - Reuters Africa - 21/07/2012
- Two Methodist University students are in South Sudan promoting peace through ... - Fayetteville Observer - 20/07/2012
- South Sudan's sadness as Games hopes fade fast - Malaysia Star - 20/07/2012
- South Sudan's sadness as Olympic hopes fade fast - AFP - 19/07/2012
- Red Cross: South Sudan joins Geneva Conventions - The Associated Press - 19/07/2012
Older news items:
- Zain and MTN target South Sudan as next mobile-money frontier - Reuters - 19/07/2012
- Severe Fuel Shortages Hit South Sudan's Capital - Voice of America - 18/07/2012
- South Sudan Urged to Improve Health Care - Voice of America - 18/07/2012
- South Sudan runner bids for independent place - Reuters - 18/07/2012
- South Sudan runner bids for independent Olympic place - Reuters AlertNet - 18/07/2012
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