Foreign policy realists sometimes ask how much seemingly marginal states such as Sudan really matter. The answer is that Sudan matters for many reasons, none more important than the millions dead and displaced due to decades of unnecessary internal violence. Sudan matters now more than ever because two seminal events are quickly approaching -- elections in 2010 and a referendum on the unity of the country in 2011 -- and the international community is increasingly concerned that they will lead to new and renewed violence and displacement. With the recent release of its long-awaited Sudan policy, Sudan matters to the Obama Administration and its efforts to transform the president's popularity abroad into tangible achievements.
But Sudan also matters because what is happening right now in Sudan, and what will happen in the next two years, has important implications for Africa and efforts to address state fragility globally for at least three reasons.
First, Sudan may test the inviolability of Africa's borders. Many of Africa's current borders were drawn almost blindly by European rulers at a conference in Berlin in 1885. They tend to be arbitrary and often awkward, splitting kin groups across different countries while placing adversarial groups within the same borders. But with few exceptions (the carving of Eritrea out of Ethiopia being the most notable), Africa's borders have remained static. Until now, African leaders and citizens have accepted the geographic hand they were dealt.
But in 2011, southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede. The referendum is the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Sudan's north and south that ended decades of civil war which cost roughly two million lives. Every indication is that southerners will vote for secession - the president of the Government of Southern Sudan recently predicted that remaining in a united Sudan would render southerners "second-class citizens." Secession would mean the division of Africa's physically largest country, with the south comprising approximately a quarter of Sudan's land. This could be deeply traumatic for Sudan, but may not affect Sudan alone.
If Africa's largest country can be divided through referendum, what does this imply for an unwieldy, arguably ungovernable country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Or Nigeria, which, not unlike Sudan, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines? How many of Africa's borders may be up for debate? Southern Sudan's right to self-determination should be unassailable, but the precedent set by secession would be felt well beyond Sudan -- something surely on the minds of leaders and disgruntled populations elsewhere.
Second, Sudan presents a stern test of the "African solutions to African problems" mantra. There are few durable African solutions to boast of, especially with Zimbabwe and Kenya backsliding. Particularly concerning Sudan's Darfur crisis, Africa is on the hook: the Darfur peacekeeping mission is a joint enterprise between the African Union and United Nations, includes troops only from Africa, and, until their recent departures, was led by a diplomat from Congo-Brazzaville and a general from Nigeria. The lead mediator for Darfur is from Burkina Faso. The African Union Panel on Darfur, which investigated issues of peace, justice and reconciliation, recently released its findings and was led by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki. African Union gatherings have debated Darfur and passed resolutions -- including one condemning the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.
Despite this depth of African engagement, there are few results to show. The scale of the killing has diminished, but millions remain displaced. UNAMID is intensely unpopular among many of the displaced and remains significantly short of its mandated capacity of 26,000 troops. There is no political solution in sight, with factionalized rebel groups struggling to unite and the most influential rebel leader, Abdel Wahid al-Nur, refusing to engage in negotiations. An African solution to this problem does not seem imminent. This is by no means solely Africa's fault, as the United States, China and others bring substantially greater leverage to the situation than any African state. But it does raise the question: if so much African engagement does not bring progress, can there be African solutions to Africa's most intractable problems?
Third, following in the footsteps of Afghanistan's highly flawed election, Sudan offers another test of whether elections in volatile environments are a good idea. The CPA called for nationwide elections mid-way through the six-year "interim period." Those elections have endured several delays, and are now scheduled for April 2010, with the CPA expiring in 2011. Preparations are underway, with voter registration commencing, in haphazard fashion, at the beginning of November. But substantial flaws in the process are already emerging: the Carter Center recently noted concerns including "slow implementation of electoral preparations...unresolved operational decisions related to voter registration activities...delays in the finalization of national, regional, and state geographic constituencies; and continued harassment of political party and civil society activity across Sudan." There are also real risks of elections triggering new or renewed violence, especially in the volatile areas of the country on both sides of the north-south border.
Many Sudanese, especially in the south, profess little interest in the elections. They are skeptical of the election process and those organizing it, and, in the south, are instead counting the days until the 2011 referendum on unity or secession. During the CPA negotiations neither the northerners nor southerners were especially keen to see elections be part of the deal; it was the international community, led by the United States, which insisted that elections come first, ostensibly to legitimize the referendum. But that insistence may be backfiring, with the international community pouring substantial funds into a process that could ultimately be perceived as illegitimate and may result in the confirmation of an unhappy and unstable status quo. If that is the outcome, little will have changed, except that precious time, effort and funds will have been devoted to elections rather than to meeting mounting humanitarian needs and preparing for the referendum and what comes after it. Should this be the result, valid questions will again be asked about elections in fragile states and whether they should be a priority. It is unlikely to be the last time such questions arise.