Southern Sudan may be little more than a year away from possessing state sovereignty. The immediate policy focus on the challenges of holding the referendum in a credible way and ensuring that its outcome is accepted and acted upon, should not make us overlook the political science questions: why does sovereignty matter? For whom is it important? And how has it changed?
A recent book by Pierre Englebert, Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow, (Boulder CO., Lynne Reiner, 2009) opens up an interesting debate on sovereignty on Africa. He addresses two puzzles. One is why African states endure even when they fail to deliver on the basic requirements for serving their populations. There appears to be a lack of sanction for wholesale administrative failure: states persist even when they demonstrably lack even a basic capacity for good governance. The classic case is Somalia: perhaps the world’s most dysfunctional state still possesses legal sovereignty over a territory that includes Somaliland, where there is a functional governance apparatus that has tried and failed for nineteen years to obtain international recognition.
The second puzzle is why there are so few separatist movements in Africa. Quite apart from the familiar challenges of ethnic diversity within artificial borders, material political logic demands an answer to the question: if possession of a state brings substantial private benefits to those who control it (sovereign rents), why have there not been more attempts to create more states? Why don’t local elites embark on state creation? Englebert notes that in the 1970s and 80s, Africa’s incidence of separatist conflict was merely ten per cent of the rest of the world’s. The ‘supply of sovereignty’ was greater in the 1960s and 1990s, with more separatist movements than the intervening decades, but they still comprise a much lower number than would have been expected in comparison to other continents.
Englebert’s analysis hinges on the material benefits that accrue to those who control the symbols and instruments of national sovereignty which is externally bestowed rather than domestically earned. Those in government have the power of legal command, which allows them to create facts by decree, and distribute offices which possess parcels of that power. Even when it has little capacity to make and implement policy, the state has tremendous declaratory powers, notably over important rights such as citizenship. Considerable rents that can be extracted from the domestic allocation of this power, especially where other forms of income are scarce. He notes that, ‘The scholarship on Africa’s “resource curse,” … has failed to identify sovereignty itself as a material resource.’ (p. 95). He is right: it is perhaps the biggest and best-tapped resource in contemporary Africa.
The core argument of Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow runs as follows: ‘(1) legal command is the domestic expression of international legal sovereignty; (2) the exercise of legal command is widely distributed within countries wherever appendages of the state are present; (3) because of the exogenous nature of African sovereignty, African legal command resists the erosion of state capacity that plagues weak and failed states; (4) as a result, its exchange value in terms of extraction and domination endures in times of failure and promotes continued attachment to dysfunctional state institutions. Taken together, these elements conspire to create a structure of acquiescence to the state. Because of the benefits of legal command relative the few nonstate opportunities for advancement and accumulation, African political elites, regional leaders, and other communal contenders face compelling incentives to surrender subnational particularistic claims and compete instead for access to the sovereign state, irrespective of the latter’s history of violence against them.’ (p. 7).
Englebert quotes Mobutu, practitioner par excellence and folk theoretician of the commoditization of all political goods: ‘everything is sold, everything is bought in our country. And in this traffic, the possession of an ordinary parcel of public power constitutes a veritable currency of exchange [for] the illicit acquisition of money or of a material or moral value, or moreover, the evasion of all sorts of obligations.’ (p. 84)
State sovereignty is one of the key points of interface between this domestic political marketplace and its international manifestation. Englebert’s main focus is on the domestic, but the ways in which states trade internationally in quanta of sovereignty could also be analyzed in a similar way.
Englebert notes how Anglophone separatists in Cameroon trek to the UN because it is there that African sovereignty is generated. This is but one example of how the sovereignty regime directs political elites towards international institutions and away from local foundations of political legitimacy and hence impedes state building. Other examples include the way in which many opposition parties run their electoral campaigns primarily to appeal to the (international) referees, rather than to win the game on the (admittedly slanted) domestic pitch. It would be interesting to analyze the relative value of ‘legitimate’ sovereign transactions in the international arena (aid, bargaining over votes in international fora) versus illegitimate ones, such as making territory available for drug cartels.
The ‘supply’ of sovereignty has fluctuated over the years. Claims to sovereignty were more readily entertained in the decolonization era of the 1960s than during the subsequent decade. Since the end of the Cold War, economic globalization and the monetization of political authority has led to the commoditization of sovereignty within regional political marketplaces, and increasingly in the global arena, which in turn has reconfigured the functionality of sovereignty.
Englebert’s comparisons with successful unrecognized states (Taiwan and the Somaliland Republic) are interesting: these governments were compelled to turn inward for legitimization with impressive results. This encourages Englebert to indulge in ‘rational policy fantasies’ for reforming the international sovereignty regime. One option is the wholesale withdrawal of recognition from African states, so that they are compelled to follow the Somaliland model and build their legitimacy based on domestic governance. Another is to liberalize the supply of sovereignty such that any entity that meets basic criteria can be recognized as sovereign. These are no more than thought experiments, but they are useful in that they help highlight the distortions and liabilities of the existing sovereign order. A third, less radical proposal is to maintain the existing map of sovereignty while encouraging autonomous subnational governmental units, thereby diluting existing forms of sovereignty by extending forms of recognition to subnational autonomies. There are sufficient precedents for quasi-sovereignty (Hong Kong, Andorra, Northern Ireland, and the Palestinian Authority) and interesting federal options to consider.
Where does this leave Sudan, and indeed the Nile Valley as a whole? Many African and Middle Eastern states are instinctively fearful of southern secession because they anticipate that it will generate separatist demands elsewhere. Tight regulation of the supply of sovereignty possesses strong multilateral consensus, precisely because the empirical basis for maintaining today’s sovereign order is so slender. Indeed it is quite possible that after January 2011, demands for self-determination will arise elsewhere, beginning in Darfur, and that Africa and the international community as a whole will marshal their best arguments to explain why southern Sudan was a one-off case.
Southern Sudan is exceptional primarily in that its claims have been legitimized both nationally and internationally in the CPA and the Interim National Constitution. In other respects, southern Sudan’s case for self-determination is merely a fine example of what Englebert calls the ‘double hypocrisy to the prevailing system of international recognition.’ (p. 253). He writes, ‘On the one hand, existing African states get a free pass, receiving recognition without meeting conventional or normative prerequisites for statehood. On the other hand, however, their constituent parts are subject to a more stringent application of the rules of self-determination and territorial integrity than elsewhere—although the rules themselves are the same.’
The double standard has both historical and legal expressions. Khartoum’s fifty years of rule over southern Sudan was scarcely an example of good governance. However, among all diplomats and policymakers, the default option is the status quo of unity, to the extent that when southern Sudan is contemplating the possibility of independence, skeptics have raised the issue of a ‘failed’ or even ‘pre-failed’ state. What could be more of a failure of governance than the two civil wars?
Legally, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 of 1960 stipulates that lack of preparedness for independence cannot be used as a reason for delaying it. The adoption of 1514 reflected the fear that imperial powers could hold up granting independence to colonies on the grounds that colonial rule had failed to educate enough natives or build enough institutions. It supplants the stipulations for recognizing statehood contained in the Montevideo Convention of 1933 on the rights and duties of states. The four conditions include a territory, stable population, effective government and capacity to enter into relations with other states—of which the third, ‘effective government’, is the most potentially contentious. Where the two frameworks meet is in the stipulation that the process for reaching sovereign status should be internationally recognized as legitimate.
Fifty years after Resolution 1514, Englebert argues that its time has passed. Versions of his argument would be welcomed by those who want to deny or delay southern Sudan’s exercise in self-determination. The contrary argument is also strong, however. In the last twenty years, much has been learned about how to manage states which have successfully claimed sovereign status, but which are still struggling to meet the Montevideo stipulations. There is not likely to be any repeat of the post-independence fiascos in Congo, Angola or Mozambique.
Having struggled for so long, and finally reaching the threshold of self-determination, many southerners are unwilling to entertain any questions that might cast doubt on their reaching and crossing the finishing line. But the big question awaits, having won sovereignty, what is to be done with it? Achieving internationally recognized sovereignty is not the end of the process of self-determination—it is, rather, a new start.