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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Sudan as a Sovereign State: Governmental Change in Slow Motion

Announced in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on February 7, 2011, voters in the oil-producing south overwhelming chose to secede from the Arab north. According to the New York Times, 98.83 percent of the more than 3.8 million registered voters in the south chose to separate from the north. The referendum had been agreed to as part of the peace agreement in 2005, after two long and brutal civil wars between the Arab Muslim north and the mostly animist and Christian south. “Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people,” President Bashir said in a statement on state television, according to Reuters. In Washington, the White House released a statement by President Obama congratulating the people of south Sudan and announcing “the intention of the United States to formally recognize southern Sudan as a sovereign, independent state in July 2011.” The New York Times reported that actual independence would be declared on July 9, when the peace agreement that set the stage for the vote expired. In the meantime, issues regarding citizenship, oil-revenue rights and the contested and volatile region of Abyei would be settled.


The referendum is in line with the political principle that popular sovereignty (i.e., of the people) transcends the authority of governments. That is to say, people have the right to establish government (rather than vice versa). In this case, the southern Sudanese decided to form a new and separate state. The result of the vote, being almost unanimous, proffers an excellent snapshot of a will of the people.  Typically, this term is abused, such as when a candidate wins reelection by a margin of fifteen or twenty percentage points.  Receiving 65% of the vote does not represent the will of the people; rather, it is the will of a majority of the people. There is a difference. In the case of south Sudan, we can say with confidence that it was the people's will to separate. That is to say, the people spoke with one voice. How rare it is for there to be a will of the people; hence we treat the view of a bare majority as such--essentially over-generalizing.  Politicians typically do the same with mandates.

What is unclear from the referendum is how the people feel about waiting until July for actual independence.  To be sure, there are outstanding issues that need to be worked out, but is it really necessary for independence to wait for everything to be worked out; President Bashir has already announced that his government would recognize the independence of the south. The acceptance of July by the Obama administration is similar to that administration's decision at the time not to push President Mubarak of Egypt to step down before September when elections would be held even had there not been mass protests.  In short, government officials seem to be oriented to time in slow motion.

The Obama administration's announcement that it would recognize south Sudan as a sovereign and independent state might not seem fitting, as the new state would presumably be a new state in the African Union (AU).  However, that union, unlike the EU and US, is a confederation akin to an alliance wherein the states continue to hold all of the governmental sovereignty. In contrast to confederations such as the AU, modern federations divide governmental sovereignty between two systems of government--that of the federation and that of the state governments.  That the AU had not intervened in the internal discord in the Ivory Coast, Egypt and Sudan suggests that that union is simply a league of friendship, merely able to mediate if invited, as in Zimbabwe during the crisis between the President and prime minister. The feckless condition of the AU can also be seen in the fact that it took so long for south Sudan to even vote on independence in spite of the fact that it was the will of the people in south Sudan. Was it really necessary, for example, to wait until 2011 when the peace treaty was signed in 2005? A union with teeth might have been able to expedite things. Unlike the states of the EU and US, the typical state in the AU is run by a dictator rather than being a republic in fact as well as name. The American Founding Fathers believed that a federal system could only have republics as members; dictators would guard their power too much and thus be too inclined to break off. Unlike a dictator, government officials in a republic are used to sharing power, so ceding some sovereignty to an empire-scale federation is not so hard. However, it can be in the political or economic interest of even a Leviathan dictator to transfer some governmental sovereignty to a federal union. Specifically, a dictator may be expected to benefit from the economic and political gains that come from a united political front and a common market. Twenty percent of 100 is more than 100% of 10. A federation of non-republic states is thus possible.

In terms of south Sudan, the cost of a weak AU was having to suffer a snail's pace on the road to independence. To be sure, such a pace was in the interest of Sudan's government. However, issues are only intractable if they are seen as such, and the people in the south could have voted on a date as well as on whether to secede. The dissolution of the Soviet Union attests to how quickly polities can change.Just as it was not clear in Febrauary, 2011 that President Mubarak had to stay in office in Egypt for seven months in order for there to be order, it should not have been presumed that south Sudan had to wait until July. Even if top government officials are typically old people, governments need not move in slow motion. The dragged-out pace evinced by south Sudan's independence even after the overwhelming 99% voting to secede suggests that governmental time is not our time and that we, the people, can move the old clocks an hour ahead in keeping with the increasing daylight. Whereas the progress of the twentieth century was largely technoligical, in the twenty-first century the human race may reach a threshold of perception wherein the dogmatic or arbitrary nature of governments is finally seen for what it is, and exercise greater popular sovereignty to make our governments more responsive. As of 2011, a critical mass of perception had not yet occurred; hence it could not yet be said that the human race itself had reached a new sense of its power over its governments.