The Referendum in South Sudan

9 Jan

Juba: a new capital city?

(Many thanks to photographer Jason Brooks for this fantastic photo of Juba.)

Today, the people of south Sudan vote in a popular referendum on whether or not to form a new independent nation or remain part of the “original” country (one essentially invented by the British in the 19th century).

The results are already  thought to be pretty obvious: remain part of a country whose government has sent in murderers and thugs to destroy your communities all the while living large off the oil on your land? Or try going it alone as a sovereign nation.

Some analysts are now suggesting that if every ‘tribal’ or ethnic group in Africa should think about seceding from the manufactured nations Europe concocted during the long period of colonization, then we’ll have hundreds of new little nations all inimical to each other.

But the issue is not ‘tribalism’ so much as egregious governance. African governments have repeatedly treated the people of their nations like , well, shit. They enrich themselves at their expense, plead poverty when it comes to providing any kind of basic educational or health or transport services, and worse, sate the dissatisfaction of some by encouraging the rape and pillage of others.  What’s more, rich-nation governments reap the benefits of these utterly discredited and dysfunctional regimes by dealing with them – buying their resources and giving them loans they know won’t be paid back because they’ve been stashed in private foreign bank accounts.

It is interesting to look therefore at another breakaway nation, Somaliland, the product of a brutal civil war like that of Sudan. According to Pierre Englebert, author of Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow, this new country, unrecognized – and unfunded — by international powers, has actually done a better job of governance than many resource-rich African nations. “Somaliland,” he wrote in a NYT op ed piece last year, “provides its citizens with relative peace and democracy, offering a striking counterpoint to the violence and misery of neighboring sovereign Somalia. It was in part the absence of recognition that forced the leaders of the Somali National Movement in the early ’90s to strike a bargain with local clan elders and create legitimate participatory institutions in Somaliland.”

In my upcoming book, I take a brief look at a small, local social movement in Somaliland called GAVO – the General Assistance and Volunteer Organization. Wanting to deal with the most glaring social needs, GAVO’s initial focus was on psychiatric patients suffering from war-induced trauma living at the local hospital. They began by simply taking care of some of their personal needs, then went on to seek donations from city merchants and to use popular theatre to educate people about, and remove the stigma from, mental illness. When UN-HABITAT approached it with a plan to rebuild the port’s central market,  GAVO set up a consultation process whereby religious leaders, vendors and purchasers were able to have a say in the project through a series of open discussions and dialogue. The organization has since taken on the entire management of the local hospital, and launched a program for street children. More importantly, it has spread to other parts of the country, promoting participatory governance and helping to broaden the impoverished nation’s democratization process.

Will a new nation of South Sudan offer its citizens peace and democracy as well? Certainly that is what we in the wealthy nations need not only to encourage but invest in.

Indeed  Englebert suggests that donor governments only recognize African states “that provide their citizens with a minimum of safety and basic rights.” I would advise them to go one step further: start working with groups like GAVO instead of those recipient governments. It may be harder and slower and require more staff, but it makes far more sense than decrying poverty on the one hand and facilitating it though the support of wicked governors on the other.



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