In the 2 Sudans: where separation breeds conflict – By Charlie Warren

South Sudanese return home to begin life in the world's newest state

When southern Sudanese voted to separate from Sudan almost one year ago, the relative calm of the polling belied its historic outcome: the actual secession of an African state. Following its long military and political struggle with Khartoum, South Sudan’s statehood also meant the need for new citizenship criteria on both sides of the nascent border. In the last six months, many southern Sudanese have begun to gather their official documents.

However, a staggering 700,000 people living in the Republic of Sudan have not been as fortunate. Their situation, and Karthoum’s official response, may have overlooked implications for regional security. More broadly, citizenship in the Sudans also challenges recent theoretical commentary about the likelihood, merits, and unintended effects of re-drawing Africa’s colonial borders.

Following the birth of a new country, citizenship policies may appear to be an exercise in bureaucratese””more to do with passports, obscure laws, and government agencies than political instability, violence, and enduring theoretical debates about the continent’s political arrangements. Yet for some postcolonial African countries, the latter may be more true to form. Citizenship laws have proven to be a clever tool at the disposal of African governments lacking capacity but searching for more. Delineated along ethnic lines, official policies can also institutionalise the same ethnic cleavages that nations””at least on some level””may smooth over.

First and foremost, the current situation in the Republic of Sudan demonstrates the potential security and humanitarian issues of citizenship policies all too well. UNHCR estimates suggest that 700,000 people in Sudan still do not have official citizenship six months since the independence celebrations in Juba. Legislatures on both sides of the nascent border have enacted new laws over the past year to address the lingering nationality questions. On the one hand, the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly has taken a more cautious angle, calling for residency qualifications as well as descent-based criteria to determine citizenship. On the other hand, the Republic of Sudan has taken a different approach. Last summer, Khartoum’s National Assembly amended its 1994 Sudan Nationality Act to make clear that any person who takes on southern citizenship will lose his legal affiliation with the northern state. Worse still, the Republic of Sudan has imposed a vague April 9 deadline stating that any southerners in its midst must “regularize” by that time or head south. That decree shortens the timeline and compounds the problems facing both countries.

Earlier this month Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called on both countries to resolve the thorny citizenship issue. The spectre of large flows of people southward and/or related violence to expel them should raise concerns among even the most ardent Afro-optimists. After all, in a region with an ethnic complexity rivaling that of Nigeria, Cameroon, or DRC, making the decision to return “˜home’ also leads to practical and existential questions.[1] Khartoum is also known for its heavy-handedness.

While citizenship issues may present real regional concerns, they have been curiously absent from the lively theoretical debate between G. Pascal Zachary, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and Adam Hyde, a researcher at LSE. Zachary’s Atlantic piece last July railed against the “cult of colonial borders” that has stymied state breakups across the continent. South Sudan is merely the start according to Zachary, and it’s time that Africans have the right to live within boundaries that they find appropriate. Though hardly unfounded, specific elements of Zachary’s argument are still untenable. Adam Hyde provided a fair and precise critique, which Zachary rebutted earlier this year. If the best knowledge on a topic comes from sustained argument, then readers are indebted to Hyde and Zachary’s exchange.

Both commentators also rely on the seminal work of scholar Jeffery Herbst.[2] However, neither acknowledges the academic’s prescience regarding citizenship and the Sudans. Writing more than ten years ago, Herbst not only recounts the significance of citizenship during Africa’s immediate post-colonial period but also suggests its role in more “tactical” decision-making among African politicians. Exclusionary citizenship laws and/or policies may be to the advantage of Africa regimes, though probably not the states themselves. Under certain geographic circumstances, Herbst argues that specific laws may in fact hinder state consolidation.

Yet even Herbst is not clairvoyant, and his scholarship cannot predict what Khartoum will do following the April 9 deadline to “regularize” or expel the southerners in its midst. In fact, it’s increasingly clear that the Republic of Sudan, which faces negative economic forecasts and declining influence following southern secession, has reverted to the relative power of citizenship policies.[3] The question then becomes: in the future, should we expect a similar response in the unlikely event of secession or the slightly more probable re-ordering of certain African boundaries?

The debate between Hyde and Zachary neglects what may be important consequences of any future state breakups on the continent. The real or imagined perception of being cheated in the drawing of new boundaries may cause some states to look inward in order to exercise their waning influence. Violence and persecutions are not improbable in the case of a breakup of two warring regions or perhaps the misguided creation of the “ethnically-coherent nations” that Zachary espouses. In fact, in one of the only other states to secede successfully in sub-Saharan Africa””Eritrea”””˜foreigners’ living in the former state did face eventual expulsions, though both sides share blame for similar policies.[4] With Ethiopia as a recent example, however, Khartoum’s policies may become even more hardline in the future.[5] Hence, even if we assume some African borders may change in the coming decades, citizenship issues need to become a higher strategic and diplomatic concern.

If the “redrawing [of] Africa’s map is a living project” as Zachary so boldly claims, it would be unwise to ignore the many possible consequences of that project””in states new, old, small, or large.

Charlie Warren works at an international affairs think tank headquartered New York City and specializes in African politics.


[1] Pastoralists provide even further logistical difficulties. See Bronwen Manby’s excellent, “International Law and the Right to Nationality in Sudan.”

[2] The dangers of invoking select scholarly research also appear in this debate. For instance, why mention Pierre Engelbert and Jeffrey Herbst without also discussing seminal works by Daniel Posner or more recent research by Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou? It’s hard to tell where to draw the line. However, as Herbst’s work is already in play in the debate, I have included it in my analysis.

[3] While Herbst’s States and Power in Africa discusses boundaries, he is mostly concerned with existing states and their power deficiencies, including space and demographic constraints.

[4] Human Rights Watch found that Ethiopians were expelled from Eritrea.

[5] It’s fair to note that Eritrea and South Sudan fought for their independence for decades, making their situations unique.

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One thought on “In the 2 Sudans: where separation breeds conflict – By Charlie Warren

  1. Those following this issue may also be interested in my blog posting – Citizenship and State Succession in the Sudans – on the Open Society website.

    Both the NCP and SPLM seem determined to deny those of allegedly southern origin (including those of mixed parentage) the right to decide where it is they want to belong. Throughout all the history of conflict between north and south, in which conflict over the ethnic and religious identity of the country played an important part, the citizenship law made no reference to religion or ethnicity (and in this it contrasted strongly with, for example, the citizenship law of Egypt – I would be interested to hear views on why this was). It was agreed that those fighting were all Sudanese. Now, and perhaps ironically, at the moment of separation of the two halves of the country, ethnicity (though not religion) has been introduced explicitly into the law for the first time.

    The new citizenship law of the Republic of South Sudan provides that one ground for recognition as a South Sudanese citizen is membership of “one of the indigenous tribal communities of South Sudan” (though, importantly it also provides other grounds based on birth in the territory and residence). Meantime, the amendments to the citizenship law of the Republic of Sudan state that anyone who obtains South Sudanese citizenship automatically ceases to be (North) Sudanese – thus introducing ethnicity into the law of the north by implication. (Dual citizenship with any other country is allowed, and has been since 1993.) Leaving aside the hundreds of thousands of people of “southern” origin living in the north, it is unclear what the implications of this rule may be for the Ngok Dinka – even though the North claims Abyei, are Ngok Dinka members of an “indigenous tribal community of South Sudan” for the purposes of (North) Sudanese citizenship law or not?

    Although this ethnic definition of the identity of the two countries seems inevitable to many, the lesson of countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and DRC is that defining a citizenship identity based on ethnicity leads to very bad outcomes. Also that different policy choices are both possible and can lead to different and much better outcomes: compare Tanzania with DRC.

    Citizenship law obsessives may also be interested in the book on comparative African citizenship law published by the Open Society Foundations

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