August 5, 2011 § 3 Comments


The rest of Fiji coming soon but first I have to draw a table for idiots who think the death penalty is normal.

The most barbaric countries in the world:


 Number executed in 2010

 Population  One execution per
Equatorial Guinea                                   4                         700,000                                  175,000
People’s Republic of China                             5,000                1,339,724,852                                  267,945
Iran                                252                     75,532,000                                  299,730
Libya                                 18                       6,355,000                                  353,056

North Korea

                                60                     24,346,000                                  405,767
Yemen                                 53                     22,492,035                                  424,378
Palestinian Authority                                   5                       3,935,249                                  787,050
Saudi Arabia                                 27                     27,136,977                              1,005,073
Somalia                                   8                       9,331,000                              1,166,375
Bahrain                                   1                       1,262,000                              1,262,000
Syria                                 17                     23,695,000                              1,393,824
Botswana                                   1                       1,800,098                              1,800,098
Belarus                                   2                       9,469,000                              4,734,500
Sudan                                   6                     30,894,000                              5,149,000
Taiwan                                   4                     23,174,528                              5,793,632
United States                                 46                   311,901,000                              6,780,457
Bangladesh                                   9                   151,030,000                            16,781,111
Egypt                                   4                     80,619,000                            20,154,750
Malaysia                                   1                     27,565,821                            27,565,821
Iraq                                   1                     31,672,000                            31,672,000
Japan                                   2                   127,950,000


And those were the only poor sods executed last year because it is a barbaric practice that nobody in their right mind condones any more.


Divine disappointment

March 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

It may have come to your attention that there is a lot going on in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. Trying to guess what is going to happen next is like trying to pin the tail on a not-sufficiently-metaphorical donkey. So I’m going to do the safe ,cowardly, academic thing and wait at the top of the ivory tower until its all over and then write a piece about how whatever happened was always inevitable; whilst in the meantime indulging in some academic theorising.

A lot of what follows isn’t my theory but comes from a fantastic book I am reading: The Foreign Policies of Middle East States. It was pretty up-to-date a few weeks ago; which is a bit like having a pretty up-to-date book on safe American investments on Wednesday, October 23rd 1929. What I’m going to try and do here is to explain their ideas in layman’s terms and then see how it applies to what has just happened.

Some of the oldest countries in the world come from this area: Egypt (8,000 years on and off), Iraq (3,000 years of Sumeria, 1,500 years of Babylonia), and Tunisia (3,000 years of Carthage) to name but a few. However there was then a long hiatus in almost all cases whilst Caliphs, Ottomans, and western empires came and went. The modern nations that we know today don’t have much to do with their ancient predecessors. Most date from the San Remo and Cairo conferences of 1921, when the winners of WW1 drew some very straight lines with rulers (if you last ’till the end, Lawrence of Arabia actually covers this quite well) and all the rest are – if not totally made up – then to a greater or lesser extent the product of colonial statecraft.

So what is interesting to consider is the process by which these nations are becoming states. It is also an important question because it ties into questions of legitimacy; and these current waves of protest can be seen as a popular rejection of state legitimacy. The process by which a nation becomes a state, “statebuilding”, has many definitions but the one I think is most germane to our current discussion is Weber’s: the process by which the state becomes the sole legitimate user of force. Certainly thinking in policy terms, the fact that there are various different groups claiming legitimacy for their use of force, is the main challenge for the regimes currently undergoing transition.

So, as a leader, how do you claim legitimacy? Well the Foreign Policy of the Middle East states suggests there are three ways to do so – or maybe it is more a case of saying there are three levels at which one can do so.

The first is the subnational. At this level you present yourself the leader and champion of your own community: be it your tribe or sect. The problem is that very few of these communities map perfectly to the nations of the area: almost all of them 20th century creations. Benedict Anderson’s brilliant Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about the importance of the community you imagine yourself to be part of, and how this can be used to build the idea of a nation using censuses, maps, and museums. In the Middle East and North Africa this isn’t a process that has run its course.

The Foreign Policy of the Middle East states introduced me to a great new word: irredentism. It describes exactly this – the dissatisfaction felt by a person regarding the disjoint between ones imagined community and ones nation state. The Middle East and North Africa (I refuse to say MENA, it sounds stupid) is rife with irredentism. As such, presenting yourself as the tribal leader – the “great chief” – is not really a viable option for much of the region. Most nations tried it at some point but it is mostly, as I say, a subnational tactic; and by the 1960s or thereabouts most nations had moved past it (we can see Weber’s building towards the sole legitimate user of force). The exceptions are Libya (where Gadaffi has deified the idea of the tribal chief – which may explain why Libya is currently falling apart along tribal lines), and failed states like Somalia.

The second level is the national. The problem here is that if you want to present yourself as the leader of a nation you have to be seen to in some way deserve that position. This is where elections come in handy: they are a fast-track to nation-based legitimacy. And if you’re worried you might not win then (provided nobody notices) you can rig it. The other, slower, route to nation-based legitimacy is to look to history. If you are going to do this then it helps to be some sort of king.

Indeed this national approach has tended to be favoured by the so-called “oil monarchies” for reasons which should be self explanatory, and by nations with particularly antagonistic relations with the neighbours.

At this point I need to write an aside about Saudi Arabia. Few nations in the world are as passionate about exporting political Islam to the rest of the world than Saudi Arabia. Nor are there many other countries as passionate about converting Muslims of other stripes to their own, tightly defined, Salafi (or local equivalent) view of Islam. It may seem odd therefore to characterize them as an advocate of the nation-based view. However the House of Saud’s primary aim is domestic stability, and a pan-regional power would be a severe threat to that. So Saudi policy is effectively that of an Islamic Lenin- Islamism in one country: good, Islamic regionalism: bad. They might put up with a global Caliphate, if Abdullah could be the Caliph, but anything else is a threat. End of aside.

The third level is the supernational. If you go down this route you claim to be the local representative of some greater, higher, more important force. God is popular for this; as God is unlikely to contradict you. But it is not the only option: pan-Arabism is another powerful force to which to appeal. This is particularly popular if you are a dictator, not a king, and do not want to have elections. Both Islam and pan-Arabism are doctrines with a lot of pull in the region, and in most places have more pull than national identity.

So lets take a lot at the region in the late ’80s (as I think that is most representative of the general trends) and take a look at what the dominant approaches were in each country (I’ve thrown in some of the more relevant neighbours as well).

political approaches of the Middle Eastern states, subnational, national, supernational

Now obviously any map of this kind is going to be a simplification, and the Foreign Policy of the Middle East states presents the situation with far more nuance than I. Here is some further background to some of the more difficult to categorize countries: Iraq and Jordan were far more pan-Arabic back in the day (especially back when the Kings of the two respective countries were brothers), but after Saddam took over Iraq he started to develop a secular nation state, and Jordan became more nation-based as the Hashemite kings grew in confidence. Algeria has been on the cusp of the two approaches for many years: the army have espoused a more nation based identity evolving from their war of independence, whereas the people have tended to accentuate their Arab identity. Whilst the government is firmly in the hands of the army, it has tried to accommodate the feeling of the people (in this regard if in no other), particularly in its dealings with Morocco and the Western Sahara. Iran was the most nationalistic of all until the ’79 revolution, at which point it became Islamism’s biggest cheerleader.

Then in the early nineties there was a big change. This came in part because the collapse of the Soviet Union made the area far more dependent on the USA – and the USA, whilst fervently anti-democracy in the region, was even more fervently anti-pan-regionalism. It also came because increasing oil wealth meant that there had been a gradual shift of power away from Egypt and the Arabists and towards the Oil Monarchies. Under Nasser Egypt had double the army of any other country in the region, and over a quarter  of the entire region’s GDP (and double Saudi Arabia’s GDP). By 1980 Egypt’s GDP as a share of the region was down to around 7% (well below Saudi Arabia’s) and its army was only the fourth largest in the region. So when the Soviet Union collapsed the importance of the Oil Monarchies to the region radically increased, and Egypt was no longer wiling or able able to project Arabism.

As a result, around 1990 virtually every nation in the region decided to bite the nationalist bullet. To this end, almost all of them that hadn’t done so already started having elections – the elections were largely rigged, but nevertheless they marked a step change in approach.

In this respect, some people say that democratization increases nationalism – as it requires the leadership to define themselves in national terms, it empowers the leaders as the leaders of the nation (but couches it in those terms), and it causes the leaders to appeal to popular sentiment.

But I don’t think that is what happened. The shift to nationalism as the source of legitimacy was real, but the democracy that accompanied it was a farce – and the leaders made no attempt to appeal to popular sentiment. Indeed it was their total ignoring of popular sentiment which is now bringing them down. Moreover, the democratic opposition – or at least the best organised parts – framed themselves in opposition to this movements. They are not necessarily Islamists (in most cases it seems there is a small but well organised Islamist minority) but they are certainly universalistic, and to a certain extent, Arabists. Insofar as we are aware (it is not a hugely researched topic) Arabic identity is still largely more strongly felt than national identity – which is one of the reasons the rebellions have spread around the region so readily.

So these newly-nationalist regimes are falling to a popular uprising which has a more regional outlook – suggesting nationalism was never really a winner, or at least not when done like that. Does that mean we can expect to see a more homogeneous and integrated Middle East? Well despite everything I’ve said, I think not.

For above everything else these were revolutions about bread-and-butter, domestic, material, concerns: the unemployment rate, the increase in food prices, Mohamed Bouazizi’s licence to sell oranges. The new regimes need to address those issues. The people of the region don’t want a new world view, just competent governance. And so i think that, at least for a while, the new regimes are going to have to look inwards, not outwards.

Quick roundup of election results

January 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The South Sudan referendum was not close: 99.59% voted yes on a 98% turnout. In other words only around 80,000 people didn’t vote and only about 1600 people voted against.

Still no solution to the impasse in the Ivory Coast but there’s some great maps of the result here

Silva was easily re-elected in Portugal, again maps here.

Provisional results from the Central African Republic suggest Bouzize is well ahead with Patisse in a distant second and probably no need for a second round. All opposition candidates are alleging rigging.

Wave upon wave of demented avengers, march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream

January 17, 2011 § 5 Comments

I’ve missed quite a week.

The Sudanese election went as smoothly as could be hoped and, although it’ll take a long time to count up the results it seems we are on track for partition. A lot of people will have their hearts in their mouth for a while yet.

The Haitian election was postponed due to continued wrangling over who should advance into the second round. The OAS observation team have suggested that when all dubious ballots are removed there is only 0.3% between the second and third candidates, and that they would support Martelly’s inclusion rather than Célestin’s (see past Haiti posts). We still have no date for a second round. And to make things more exciting, former dictator Jean-Claude “baby doc” Duvallier ended his self imposed exile and arrived back in Haiti yesterday to general exclamations of “what the?”, “why?” and “what’s his game?”

And then there was Tunisia.


Tunisia, or Carthage, home of the other Hannibal of whom I don't have a photo.

By now most of you will have read quite a lot about it so I’ll be brief and to the point. What happened and three small observations.

What happened?

Tunisia copied a pattern which will be familiar to citizens of many countries and moved in the 50s from colonial rule to dictatorship and in the 90s from outright dictatorship to nominal democracy but with one party totally dominant. That party is the RCD, formally left wing but effectively simply a “kings party”, the party of power, the party of government, the party of the army. Since seizing power in a palace coup in 1987 the leader of the RCD and Tunisia has been Zinedine Ben Ali.

There had been mounting unrest over totalitarianism and economic failings in Tunisia for some time. On the 17th of December there was widespread rioting and Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, set fire to himself after being prevented from working by the authorities’ refusal to grant him a licence. The police and Ben Ali, at first came down hard on the demonstrators killing several. However this led to those who died becoming martyrs and to a series of copycat protest-suicides. Realising the situation was rapidly spiralling out of control Ben Ali changed tack, promised economic and social reforms, to stand down in three years time, and even visited Bouazizi just before he died in hospital on Jan 4th. However by then it was too late and the situation descended into bloody violence with the forces of the state and the public at loggerheads.

Seeing the writing on the wall Ben Ali fled on Jan 14th, abdicating the presidency and thus triggering a presidential election within the next 60 days. The next 24 hours were chaotic with 3 different heads of state: firstly it was not clear at what point Ben Ali ceded the presidency, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi briefly stepped up to the plate, before turning power in a matter of hours over to the speaker of the upper house Fouad Mebazaa.

The situation is far from over. Ben Ali loyalists are still trading gunfire with members of the public and the armed forces, who have by no means all changed sides – although the arrest of prominent Ben Ali supporters suggests that the government is trying to make a clean break with Ben Ali lest they too become infected. And this is the crux of the issue: the protests were not just about Ben Ali’s rule – they were about the RCD in general. And the RCD are as entrenched as ever. All the faces of the new government who are so keen to suggest that they are the new, modern, face of Tunisia are RCD men through and through; and were Ben Ali loyalists until last week.

So the next elections will be key. Will it be the same old RCD landslide and if so will the public accept that, and if they do will the RCD genuinely change, continue as before with a  different front-man, or even pave the way for bringing back Ben Ali a la FR Congo? Or if there is to be a new face how will they get organised within the next mere 60 days?

3 brief observations.

As Jane Kinninmont from the Economist Intelligence Unit said, it is “fascinating that the Arab world’s first popular revolution in 50 years was not carried out by Islamists.” Personally I find it even more fascinating that one would have assumed it would have been. The USA has utterly brought the line that the Arab world faces a choice between dictatorships that merely abuse human rights a little and and democracy which would be a fast road to rule by Taliban-like groups. Tunisia shows what a load of rubbish that was from the beginning.

For one thing Islamism is strengthened by dictatorship in that it provides and alternative to an unpopular government, so by supporting the dictator you strengthen Islamism not weaken it. But also Islamism is by no means an automatic choice of those who reject dictatorship; nor is it necessarily even the strongest political motivating force in Arabic countries – as Tunisia shows. Issues of sustenance come first; when they are championed by Islamists (Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood) they do well, but they can equally have other champions (Jordan’s quasi-liberal Islamic Action Front, the OACL in 1980s Lebanon, or the continuing Palestinian socialist movement) it’s just a question of who steps up to the plate.

Secondly everybody has written the subject of the role of social media in the revolution to death. However it is not without reason.



Schoolchildren in Tunisia wearing Guy Fawkes masks in the fashion of Anonymous

Facebook, Twitter and Youtube did play a large part in orchestrating the demonstrations, some people give Wikileaks some credit, and Anonymous repeated the kind of supporting attacks they took part in during Iran’s green revolution. It certainly played a part, and certainly in the post-wikileaks, post-internet era it is becoming increasingly harder to sell a lie to your ever more informed public.

In 2007 Yerkes National Primate Research Center (sic) conducted an interesting experiment on Capuchin Monkeys. Two monkeys did tricks in exchange for cucumbers perfectly happily. They then did the same trick in separate cages from which they couldn’t see each other and one monkey was given a cucumber for performing the trick and one monkey grapes. Then the partition was removed and the two monkeys were able to see each other. Upon realising that the one monkey was getting grapes for a task in which he received a mere cucumber, the second monkey threw a fit and went on strike. It’s a fairly obvious experiment but quite a nice metaphor. The internet removes our partition: makes it harder for those of us with grapes to hide or justify our grapes to those of us with cucumbers.

Ok fair enough, and you can read a thousand other articles that say the same thing on any major news site (but mine has monkeys). But I think it is worth pointing out that this isn’t really anything new. The Green Revolution in Iran really was special (albeit it didn’t quite come off) and even before then there were internet and social media aspects to uprisings in Serbia, the Ukraine, and Georgia. As the scale of social media grows and information becomes ever harder to control then yes dictators will struggle to justify their existence. But those who suggest that Tunisia is the first domino to fall should remember there are still more internet connections in Manhattan that the whole of Africa, and that it is going to take a while before there are enough tweeters in Chad to take down Idriss Deby.

Of more interest to me is the demographic aspect. Like most revolutions this was a revolution of the young – the young have less to lose. But 27% of the population of Tunisia is between the ages of 15 and 25, and that is not an atypical distribution for the region. There are now over a billion 12-18 year olds on the planet and 90% of them living in the developing world.

Thank you BBC

That is a lot of potential revolutionaries. Even without web 2.0 and all the rest of it this could be a very bumpy decade, but with any luck we’ll come out of it with fewer dictators than we went in. Bliss it was that dawn I guess.

They don’t like it…

January 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

So I wrote a post about Sudan and its January 9th referendums and then it got deleted. I’m still mourning it but life goes on and it ain’t coming back so here I go again:

So Sudan is a country which the British conquered in the late 19th century. It is where the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” (or Hadendoa Dervishes) massacred Gordon at Khartoum before being brutally put down by the British Army as fairly faithfully represented by Corporal Jones in Dad’s army. As he so astutely pointed out “they don’t like it up ’em” – a pity as stabbing seems to be one of the main recreational activities in the region.


Anyway that’s my last snide comment: I’m now going to attempt to stay away from the whole “isn’t it all so gloomy?” school of journalism because a) it can slip quite easily into Orientalism (over Christmas I started to think that if Edward Said read Foreign Affairs he’d build up sufficient Relative Centrifugal Force to leave himself nicely sedimented) and b) I don’t think that is really the story.

I once met a man (hideous name drop number one of 2011: I was on the panel for Yvonne Ridley’s discussion show) who’d just come back from the Sudan and said that the mood amongst many was hostile to the western media because they concentrate so heavily on the negatives in Sudanese politics that it denigrates their achievements. As a case in point: they had just had an election for the Presidency which Omar al-Bashir had rigged. And that was all that was reported: “typical African farce “etc… The Sudanese were quite cross about this because they felt that whilst, yes, they had been rigged, they were still the best elections they’d ever had: they marked a qualitative leap forwards – particularly in the conversations that had been engendered and the relative lack of violence – and they were very angry that the west had chosen to ignore all of these positives and just look at the headline result.

Of course if one goes too far down this line then you can easily become an apologist for Bashir, but I think it is worth looking beyond the obvious negatives and – not to belittle the very serious problems in Sudan – highlight the quite extraordinary achievement of the Sudanese in emerging from the nightmare of the last 20 years into a situation which is now merely absolutely terrible. My personal view is that Bashir is a monster and that there aren’t many saints in this story but that there is a process in place which is going somewhere and that, in itself, is remarkable.

So what’s going on?

Well one of the things that upset me most about losing my last post is I lost the guide I did to the 20+ groups involved with the Sudanese Civil War. I can’t face recreating it, I also think a lot of it is kind of redundant. So I’m going to try explaining this in a different way.

Whilst it is a bit of a simplification, the Civil War was basically between those who supported and those who opposed Bashir. Bashir himself has been the President since seizing power in a coup in 1989. His supporters tend to be members of some (although not necessarily all) of the following partly overlapping groups: northerners or those from the centre, Muslims, pastoralists, ethnic Arabs, nomads, paler skinned people. Conversely his opponents tend to be from some (although not necessarily all) of the following partly overlapping groups: people from the peripheries of the nation, Christians and Animists, aribalists, ethnic Africans, settled populations, darker skinned people.

In addition there is a region-wide angle to all this. Whilst the only recent official war between Sudan and its neighbours was a reasonably bloodless two year spat with Chad between 2005 and 2007, it is no secret that Sudan loathes and is loathed by all its neighbours – particularly the two other regional strongmen: Chad’s Idriss Deby and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. This results in a network of interrelated proxy wars: Chad, Uganda, and the Central African Republic all have 4 or more active rebel groups (the splits between each nation’s rebel groups are usually either religious or due to historical disagreements over whether to accept a particular peace offer). They all accuse Sudan of providing funding and support for these rebellions; nor are these accusations without justification.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the fighting associated with any particular nation’s civil war does not necessarily happen within the boundaries of that nation; rather rebel groups and government armies chase each other all across the four afflicted nations, clashing en route with other rebel groups involved in other civil wars and other national armies. They also often spill over into the DR Congo (everyone’s favourite military destination), Eritrea, and Cameroon (where they complicate Cameroon’s own civil war – which some have suggested is also linked to Bashir).

Regardless of Bashir’s complicity in actively supporting these groups (the consensus seems to be that the link with at least some is proven, others may be a case of scapegoating the obvious suspect) it is undeniable that he at least tolerates their presence on Sudanese soil. The Ugandan People’s Democratic Army now exist almost exclusively in southern Sudan and the Lord’s Resistance Army were until recently one of the major military forces in Sudan – often doing more to crush Sudan’s own rebellion than the Sudanese army.

Which brings me back by a commodius vicus of recirculation to Sudan’s own civil war. Sudan likewise claims the other countries involved in the proxy wars are financing the Sudanese rebel groups, and that too is possibly the case. Ethiopia has also given lavishly to anti-Bashir rebel groups in the past and there is a long list of potential donors for such a cause. Remember when Somali pirates captured a boat carrying 33 tanks and numerous artillery pieces and nobody would admit to knowing anything about who owned it, where it had come from, or where it was going? Well that is a classic case in point. It turned out to be destined for anti-Bashir south Sudanese rebels via a complex arrangement involving the Ukraine and Kenya. According to wikileaks the USA too has donated arms.

To add one final layer of complexity to all this, Bashir likes the freedom that acting outwith the state gives him and so, as well as acting through the military, he likes to cultivateparamilitary forces. So as well as the Sudanese Army you have the Janjaweed (Janjaweed is a blanket term meaning Arab fighter – one of the best translations for it I have seen is “Viking” – but has come to mean all the non formal supporters of Bashir), the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and – until the late 90s – Al Qaeda (Bin Laden lived in Sudan from 1992 to 1996) fighting for Bashir. It is these non-state pro-Bashir actors that perpetrated some of the worst abuses of the war.

So where does that leave us? Well look at this map:


The civil war is kind-of still going on but there has been a bit of a lull of late. When it was in full flow Bashir’s forces held the orange and various rebels held all the other bits. As part of the peace process (which officially started in 1993 but became meaningful in around 2005ish) the orange is controlled by the national government whilst all the other areas have their own transitional arrangements. The national government is meant to involve representatives of all the various rebel groups but it is pretty much entirely Bashir dominated.

Going round the other areas: the green is Darfur. Darfur was dominated by two rebel groups during the Civil War: the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement; the main difference being that the JEM have an Islamic ideology whereas the SLM recruit mostly from Christians and Animists. Since then Darfur has been ruled by the Transitional Darfur Regional Authority: an organisation with ten members, eight of whom are members of the  JEM or the SLM.

The idea was then to have a referendum to decide whether to go back to the old system in which Darfur doesn’t really exist (and thereby accept a fairly central Bashir-driven state) or set up an autonomous region of Darfur (which would doubtless be dominated by the JEM and the SLM, and may eventually lead to full Darfuri independence). Either way the Transitional Authority would be abolished. But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly – first the transitional authority accused the national government of exceeding its authority and interfering in its affairs, then the national government accused the JEM and SLM of breaching the ceasefire, then they counter-accused the government, via the Janjaweed, of breaching the ceasefire and said they were “stepping away from the peace process”. As a result the transitional authority limps on (severely damaged) things are very tense indeed, and the referendum on the future state of Darfur (originally set for August and then reset for the same day as the other referendums) has no date set. Talks to resolve the situation are ongoing but are badly stalled.

The purple is the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front is the name for both an area and the group that runs it. They are formed from the political movements behind two of the area’s ethnic groups: the “Beja Congress” and the “Rashida Free Lions”. They in turn were backed by Eritrea and by Darfur’s JEM. After a long fight with the Janjaweed they settled on a peace treaty whereby they would become the de facto rulers of the area whilst the de jure power would be held by the central government (various parliamentary seats and provincial ministries are also guaranteed to them). They are not directly involved in the referendum.

The pink represents the Blue Nile an Nubian mountain areas. These areas supported the southern rebels in the civil war but have been quietly forgotten about by both sides. The idea is that the areas are too poorly defined, and the issues too complex,  for a referendum to be a fair reflection of popular will. As a result there will instead be “popular consultations” at the same time as the referendums to decide what the future of the areas will be. Everyone agrees that this is just a polite fiction, that the consultations will be minimal, and that they will end with the areas returning to Bashir government control. Some fear these areas may become the Ulster of the settlement: sold out by the south in exchange for their own independence and creating a problem for the future.

The red represents Abyei. Abyei has always occupied a bridging role between north and south, both culturally and geographically. Militarily it was split in half between the government and the southern rebels. As such it is a matter of great controversy whether it should be included in any peace settlement affecting the south. The UN negotiated compromise is that, whilst it will not be involved in the peace settlement for the south initially it will, at the same time as the other referendum, hold a binding referendum of its own on whether to consider itself northern and southern and, if it chooses southern, then whatever deal is agreed for the south will also apply to it. This is the first of the referendums which will actually go ahead on the 9th. Like the other it will require a simple majority either way to pass but a turnout of less than 60% will require it to be re-run at a timetable which has yet to be determined.

Incidentally it is not the whole of Abyei that will get to vote, but just those contentious districts that the international arbitration panel decided not to decide for itself upon – they have already put the rest, including the region’s largest oilfield, into the north.

Most importantly the blue is South Sudan. It was initially in the South Sudan that the most fierce of the civil war fighting occurred and many early reports characterised the Sudanese Civil War as a purely north-south affair. However there has actually been a fairly lasting peace between north and south since 2005 and in that time the violence, and the attention of the world, moved to Darfur and to the Eastern Front. The reason the peace has lasted is because the largest of the rebel groups – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or Movement (not to be confused with the similarly named Darfuri group) are very powerful indeed. They have tanks. They were the de facto rulers of the south for many years and the peace process accepted the institutions they set up as the legitimate institutions of state in the south. In theory it also gave them a stake in the national government and the vice presidency, but in practice the SPLA have been willing for Bashir to keep the north and Bashir has been willing to let the SPLA keep the south.

In essence what started as a civil war over who should rule the nation developed an ethno-religious aspect, in so doing it became an inter-regional conflict and now it has become so entrenched as such that we are actually looking at the nation potentially splitting in half.

And so now we have this referendum on independence on the ninth. After much toing and froing over exactly what majorities and what turnouts would constitute what result all parties seem to now accept that if over 50% of people vote yes on January 9th, and if turnout is over 60%, South Sudan will become an independent nation. If they vote no it won’t. And if turnout is less than 60% then we will do the whole thing again at some point in the future.

At what point hasn’t been decided yet, nor has the process for giving Southern Sudan independence should it vote for it. And herein lies the rub of the issue. In a sense what the outcome is is immaterial*: if they vote yes it will just make formal a separation which has existed in actuality for many years, if they vote no then the SPLA will still have total control of the south and Bashir total control of the north. Either way some of the main problems (racial, religious, and ethnic tension, mob violence, the tensions between the two sides, the fact that both sides are ruled by totalitarian dictators) will remain. However if the process goes wrong, then that is much much more serious. I can’t see any specific result in of itself leading to a resumption of the civil war – there isn’t enough at stake – but problems in the process, that could start a civil war overnight, because it is in the process that everything is at stake. The South is terrified of losing the autonomy it has, and if the north attempts to seize it back it will be procedural.

And so there we have it. It should be three referendums plus one consultation exercise but instead it will be just two referendums and once charade.  A new country may well be born; but if it isn’t it will scarcely matter. Indeed if all goes well none of it will really matter and the peace will last, but if anything goes wrong it will be a bloodbath.

Fingers crossed.



*Potentially one could argue that if the south gets independence than that will make north Sudan a more homogeneously Arabic and pro-Bashir place and that will be bad for Darfur and for other minorities in the north. I would argue that as these groups never enjoyed particularly strong support from the southern rebels in any case the political effect will be minimal. Militarily being free of the south might free up the Sudanese Army and Janjaweed for more of its police actions/ethnic cleansing but if Bashir really decides to go for his own people the way he did a few years ago then of far greater import will be the strength and nature of the African Union and UN response.

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