Two Perspectives on the Precedent South Sudan’s Secession Sets

I’ve written before about whether South Sudan’s secession might inspire hope in other regions, like Somaliland, that hope for independence and autonomy. Here are two further perspectives on the issue, representing stances for and against a wave of secessions.

The AP says South Sudan’s secession “is likely to set a dangerous precedent in an Arab world looking increasingly fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines”:

Already, there are growing secessionist sentiments, exclusive enclaves and intensifying calls for autonomy in some Arab nations such as Iraq and Yemen. In countries like Lebanon and Egypt, the fault lines are widening between ethnic and religious groups, threatening to split loyalties.


Apart from the Sudanese vote, some of the fractures already existing in the Arab world have grown deeper.

In Iraq, leaders of the embattled Christian minority, citing the failure of security forces to protect them, are calling on the government to establish a new province they can claim as their own to escape attacks by Muslim militants who have killed hundreds of Christians and forced tens of thousands to flee the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.


In Yemen, a secessionist movement is gaining strength in the south of the country, once an independent state that became part of a unified state in 1990. The south sought secession again in 1994, staging a revolt that was ruthlessly put down by the government in northern Yemen.

In Lebanon, whose survival on a delicate power-sharing formula filters down to the army and most government departments, haunting memories persist from the 1975-1990 civil war when Christians and Muslims turned against each other.

The New America Foundation’s Parag Khanna sees the issue differently, writing in “Breaking Up Is Good to Do” that Sudan’s referendum sets a worthy example:

All the world’s influential powers and diplomats should seize a new moral high ground by agreeing to prudently apply in such cases Woodrow Wilson’s support for self-determination of peoples. This would be a marked improvement over today’s ad hoc system of backing disreputable allies, assembling unworkable coalitions, or simply hoping for tidy dissolutions. Reasserting the principle of self-determination would allow for the sort of true statesmanship lacking on today’s global stage.

In Sudan, the United States has certainly placed itself on the right side of this trend.


The entropy afflicting the post-colonial world will not stop anytime soon. States like Congo, Nigeria, and Pakistan, which are internally diffuse and often intentionally unevenly developed, will soon be too large to manage themselves. It is less likely that they will gather the competence, capacity, and will to become equitable modern states than that they will continue to inspire resistance to the legacies of centralized misrule.

The coming partitions must be performed with a combination of scalpel and ax, soft and hard power. Above all, the world must recognize that these partitions are inevitable. Our reflex is to fear changes on the map out of concern for violence or having to learn the names of new countries. But in an age when any group can acquire the tools of violent resistance, the only alternative to self-determination is perpetual conflict.

NPR has a follow-up interview with Khanna.

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Two Perspectives on the Precedent South Sudan’s Secession Sets

  1. The only precedent being set is that you have to have a civil war for two or three decades in order to secede — the new government’s ability to govern notwithstanding. This is what hopeful African states should take away from the only successful cases, Eritrea and South Sudan. A country that governs well and democratically, with substantial transparency and accountability amid the most chaotic region of the world like Somalia? That won’t get you anywhere.

    • Hi Adam, You make a good point in the first part of what you say. Not sure I understand the second part though – you’re saying Somaliland has no chance?

  2. Sorry, meant Somaliland — not Somalia.

    It doesn’t seem like it. There are too many obstacles with giving them international recognition and it would take something really major for that to change. Even Somalilanders are pretty torn about the idea from what I understand, and if Somalia ever got its act together they would likely want to reunite (though personally I don’t see why that couldn’t be an option.) But with the Arab League dead-set against it, al-Shabab threatening to make life difficult for them, and reluctance of any African leader — particularly now after South Sudan — to be perceived as encouraging separatists, I can’t see it happening.

    The country most likely to be the first to recognize them — Ethiopia — who has strong economic and diplomatic ties to Somaliland (and who desperately need the port to access the Red Sea), is also the country that probably is the least likely. Somali irredentists in the Ogaden region would surely take this reorganization of the Somali nation as reason to flare up their cause.

    That said, I’m by no means an expert on Somalia and it’s likely nothing I just said is all that well-informed.

    • Those are important points, especially about the complexities of the situation for Ethiopia. I do think US frustration with the TFG is mounting, and you do hear prominent voices in the US arguing for recognizing Somaliland, but it does seem international recognition is a ways away, if it comes at all.

  3. World War I showed that large multi-ethnic states could not work in Europe and yet Europeans turned around and created those very same states in Africa. Did they not learn the lessons from the Austrian empire or from Yugoslavia. Sudan never should have existed in the first place. I expect the Beja and the people of Dafur will wish to follow south Sudan. Who knows the Nubians in the north may regain a homeland too.

    I think this should bolster the people of Western Sahara to keep pressing for their freedom. It should also serve as a warning to other large multi-ethnic or multi-cultural states that you must distribute resources equally or risk falling apart like Yugoslavia.

    As far as Somaliland is concerned I think they should be given the opportunity to be independent. They have managed to form a stable, coherent and relatively democratic government and should be rewarded. If the people of Somaliland vote for independence the UN should recognize it. They should not be forced to suffer because south Somalia can’t get it’s act together.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Chris. I think a lot of people feel this way. Seems like you are in Khanna’s camp then.

  4. Yeah I definitely agree with Khanna. I think we need to get away from the concept of maintaining current borders and think about what is best for the people. Sometimes that will mean large states should be broken up into smaller more homogeneous. ones. Sometimes they can work if power is shared equally among the groups and they have a common heritage or culture.

    Northern Sudan should have realized that forcing someone to accept a different culture wasn’t going to work. Although I find it interesting that the Northern Sudanese are trying so hard to act like Arabs when it’s clear they have mostly African ancestry.

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