Whenever disaster strikes, those at the periphery socially or physically, suffer the most. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is the classic example. The poor bore the wrath of Mother Nature. In 1985, when I was small boy, our cattle—a source of pride in my culture— were taken at gunpoint at Malek Ubur by cattle raiders, the Murahaleein. My father (may he rest in peace) and I returned to our village, Ajok, crestfallen and speechless.
My home state of Aweil borders River Kiir, mistakenly labeled “Bahr El Arab” on the physical map of Sudan. Being physically peripheral to the North and Darfur, Aweil was among the first places to feel the heat when war broke out in 1983. Other border areas, including Raja, Abyei, Unity, Upper Nile, and Blue Nile saw early fighting too. Eventually, the whole of southern Sudan became a battlefield, leading to losses of innocent lives, mass displacement, rendering institutions ineffective, and crippling the economy.
Seeing my cows gone, my spirits awoke in joining the liberation movement in 1987, fleeing to Ethiopia with the other boys who would later be dubbed by the media as “the Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Nearly six years after a landmark peace deal was signed, Sudan is now gearing up for a vote that will decide whether the county stays united or splits in two. Anxiety is building, and questions abound: Has unity been made attractive or unattractive? Will the southern referendum be fair and free? What if there is a disagreement over accuracy of votes or voter turnout? How will the citizenry respond if tension continues to rise? About 3 million deaths during the North-South civil war and in Darfur, Sudanese are weary of fighting but also feel they have sacrificed much. These questions are of concern to Sudanese in all regions of the country, but all the more so to the peripheral communities.
Instead of burying its head in sand, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party in the North should recognize the inevitable: “The South is going,” as people say in Sudan. With just a few months to work out plans for the referendum process and arrangements for the post-referendum period, Sudan’s ruling parties should take some lessons from our neighbors, Eritrea and Ethiopia. The experience of their secession referendum 16 years ago underscores the importance of addressing issues such as border demarcation, citizenship, and economic matters like the sharing of debts, liabilities and other assets. But even beyond these immediate and tangible hot-button issues, Juba and Khartoum should borrow a leaf from the Eritrean experience on more theoretical and long-ranging matters to inform their governing styles.
First, disputes with neighbors on small matters are never won. They continually strain relations and block cooperation on important matters such as trade and regional integration. Worse still, going to war with the country you have broken away from is unwise because it drains resources on both sides. Should secession pass, southern Sudan and Khartoum will be better off living as good neighbors than sworn enemies. If anything, Juba should be directing its resources to fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army currently terrorizing southerners in Western Equatoria state.
Second, liberation movements are waged for a higher cause—total freedom. On any statistical measure, post-secession Eritrea did not embrace true democracy. Instead, it erected a one party state which is oppressive and cracks down on any challenge to its authority. Southern Sudan should take heed. Opposition acts as an important check and balance on excesses of power. Southern Sudan should not thwart efforts by opposition groups to nurture multiparty impulses. One-party politics, for a nation that fought war for a long time, is a recipe for conflict. Such a power arrangement breeds dictatorship, condones corruption, and rewards incompetency and sycophancy.
Third, the media and freedom of the press matter. In its 2009 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea as the least free country in the world (pdf). Information is power. An informed citizenry makes informed decisions on social and economic matters. Both Juba and Khartoum will be well served if they address grievances that may arise through a democratic apparatus rather than by silencing critics.
To sum up, leaders in Khartoum and Juba will do our country some justice if they respect the will of southerners at the polls in January and embark on an undeviating path of democracy. To other African countries and the wider international community, be prepared to accept the people’s choice; secession of the South won’t balkanize Africa. And to the people of southern Sudan, we must be prepared for a challenging road ahead and recognize that our diversity is a strength; we must not let it be our weakness.
James Alic Garang is a PhD Student in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts. He is reachable at aliabuga[at]yahoo.com