By Owei Lakemfa
THE reaction of the Nigerian Government, as indeed many governments in Africa on the secession of Southern Sudan was muted. They did not want to be seen supporting the breakup of an African country when they themselves are also vulnerable. But the results of the independence referendum released this week should have put paid to that.
The referendum results made public by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission Bureau chief, Justice Chan Reec Madut revealed that over 99 percent of the voters in Southern Sudan voted for secession in the January referendum. The voter turnout in the ten states of Southern Sudan was also 99 percent. In Northern Sudan, over 60 percent of the eligible voters turned out with 58 percent voting for secession.
The chairman of the Commission, Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil announced that 99 percent of Sudanese voters in eight countries also voted for secession. With this result, a new country will emerge from South Sudan in July, 2011.
Nigeria’s reluctance, stems from its bitter experience when the East decided to secede and it was backed by fellow African countries like Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia. The origin of the secessionist bid in Nigeria can be located in leaders who did not believe in the country, some of them had a sense of superiority over others, a general rivalry in the sharing of offices and the minefields planted by Britain, the former colonial master.
Ironically, the political elites from the North had thrice decided to break away; first under colonialism when they presented an eight-point ‘confederal’ plan, then in the wake of the July 29, 1966 counter-coup, and later, at the Ad hoc Conference of the then four regions convened by the General Yakubu Gowon regime. At that Conference, the West joined the North and East in voting for secession.
Only the Mid West voted for a united Nigeria. However, the subsequent civil war in which at least two million people lost their lives, brought about a sobering effect.
What assisted the fast recovery and healing process in Nigeria was the demonstrable “No Victor, No Vanquished” philosophy and the follow-up programme of reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. The Igbos were given a sense of belonging so much that the acceptance that the country’s unity is a given reality, prevails.
But the Nigerian experience is no reason why we abandoned the Southern Sudanese people who were being physically enslaved, politically repressed and were for decades being annihilated by their fellow citizens who imposed Sharia, Islamisation and Arabism on them. I am not sure that much tears will be shed for Sudan as it bids its southern half goodbye; it had all the time in the world to mend its ways and integrate the South as part of a country based on equality and social justice, but it refused or failed.
The reluctance of most African countries to recognise genocide in Sudan is partly due to the Organisation of African Unity/African Union (OAU/AU)Charter. Three of its seven principles upholds the colonial boundaries as inviolable. They declare the “non- interference in the internal affairs of states” as a dogma. But the truth is that borders cannot be sacrosanct; entities that marginalise or repress other peoples or parts of a country, especially the minorities, risk violent resistance.
It was wrong for the OAU/AU to close its eyes to repression of peoples in its member states; worse still, it was criminal to condone colonialism by African countries. This was the case of Eritrea, a country colonised by Italy in 1886. After the defeat of Italy in the Second World War, the United Nations, rather than allow independence, handed it to Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Sellasie to administer. He merely annexed Eritrea to his empire. The Eritrean people had to engage in a war of liberation from 1961 to 1993 before gaining independence.
A similar tragedy played out in Western Sahara where a departing colonial master, Spain, rather than allow independence, handed the country to Morocco for keeps. Luckily, the OAU/AU recovered quickly to recognise the independence of the Sahrawi people.
Admittedly, colonial boundaries pose a serious and complicated challenge. For example, the Ewe people were monolithic, occupying a contiguous geographical area.
They were colonised by the Germans. After the defeat of Germany in the Second World War, two Western powers divided German Togoland as a spoil of war. Britain got a slice of the Eweland and added it to its then Gold Coast colony where it remains to this day as part of Ghana. The tragedy of this colonial experience is that a people with one culture, language and origin were forced into two different colonies and later, countries with two different colonial languages; English and French, two different foreign cultures, two different tariffs and two currencies.
The tension created by the two rival colonial powers, and later, two independent African countries; first, radical Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Sylvanus Olympio in Togo, and radical John Jerry Rawlings in the former and conservative Gnasingbe Eyadema in the latter, continuously unsettled the Ewe people. There have been conflicts at the borders of both countries. But it seems, this will be the lot of the Ewe people eternally.
There have also been other border challenges such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Cabinda province of Angola where the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) fought a guerrilla war from 1975 to 2006. But this particular case seems to have stemmed more from attempts to control the oil wealth of the region rather than a case of true emancipation.
Whatever be the case, Africans should stretch their hands and lift up the new nation of Southern Sudan that has fought so heroically and voted so convincingly for independence. Nigeria and other African countries should immediately set up diplomatic missions in Juba, capital of the emergent country and not wait until the West and America have had the country fully wrapped up before acting. The AU also needs play a major role in demarcating the borders of Southern and Northern Sudan.