If the forecasts are borne out, this week will see the emergence of a new African state, Southern Sudan. The peace agreements signed in 2005 between the two halves of the country, called for the holding of a referendum that took place last week. According to all the surveys, the secessionist option was bound to prevail, though the results will not be known until February 14.
The secession reflects long-standing historical reasons, based on ethnic and religious differences. The North has been Arabized and Islamic for centuries, while the South remained animist and influenced by Christianity in the colonial period. But the birth of Southern Sudan was determined by more immediate causes: the International Criminal Court had begun an investigation against the president of Sudan, Omar el Bashir, for the massacre in Darfur in the west.
The sectarian behavior of the Muslim North, radicalized by the government of El Bashir, has thus led to the breakdown of colonial frontiers which, like most of those in Africa, were drawn in disregard of the social realities that they joined or separated. If its independence is confirmed, Southern Sudan will, from the very first, become the scene of a tug-of-war between the United States and China for the control of African resources — such as petroleum, of which the South has large reserves.
For some two decades now, quietly but constantly, the diplomacy of Beijing has been increasing its presence on a continent which the rest of the world long considered an economic and political outcast, to which attention was paid only from the humanitarian point of view. And though it began rather tardily, the United States began to transmit signals that it desired a greater involvement in African affairs, starting during the presidency of Bill Clinton. With Barack Obama, these signals have taken more concrete form in a strategy of far wider scope, in regard both to Africa's inherent interest in economic and political terms, and to its growing importance in the contest for world hegemony.
The birth of Southern Sudan can hardly help but have far-reaching effects on the rest of Africa, where, since the 1990s, there has been a proliferation of conflicts within colonial borders that were generally drawn in a wholly arbitrary manner. If anything can slow the spread of the secessionist phenomenon, it is the huge price that the Sudanese, North and South alike, have had to pay, in order to reach an agreement such as the referendum that concluded on Saturday.
Nobody seems to fear that the result, whatever way it inclines, may propitiate a return to violence. After two decades of war, fear and fatigue are factors that have been far more persuasive than the political programs promised by the country's respective armed forces.