Pressing reset on new states

My secret dreams of becoming an urban planner were nurtured by the computer game SimCity, and my secret plans for world domination, by Sid Meier’s Civilization. Both these games have gone through various iterations since the late 1990s when I first started playing them, but the challenge of turning a randomly-generated landscape into a bustling metropolis or cultural hegemon has always been a mischievously alluring one.

For the European adventurers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries traversing uncharted seas to map Africa, South America and Asia, huge swathes of the map were considered terra nullius – like my randomly-generated computer game landscapes, empty land, upon which claims of possession could be made. ‘Civilization’, in the minds of the colonizers, would begin afresh in these lands.

But as they found then in their relationships with local peoples, and as we find now in the creation of new states, little starts from scratch. As the referendum in south Sudan heads for the conclusion of the count, with independence the expected outcome, wrestling with its historical legacies throws up new challenges for the would-be rulers of the world’s would-be newest state.

Some of these can seem rather prosaic, but matter hugely in the long-term. One is the name of the new country itself – the popular shorthand has been South Sudan, but a range of other possibilities exist:

“The easiest option would be to stick to what people call it now — South Sudan or Southern Sudan.

“But there are some serious branding issues. Say “Sudan” to most outsides and they will immediately think of a list of nasties — Darfur, the never-ending north-south civil war, military coups, militancy and crippling debt.

“A new nation might be grateful for a new name with a clean slate.

“Equatoria has a nice ring to it. But that would associate the entire diverse territory with just three of its current states — Western and Eastern Equatoria, together with Central Equatoria, the home of the capital Juba.

“New Sudan is catchy but perhaps a little presumptuous. Old Sudan would not be happy.”

And so on. Names do matter – and not just if you’re Sarah Palin, confusing North Korea with South Korea over which is the US ally. How differently would we think of Bangladesh if it remained, after independence, as East Pakistan? As statements of identity, names reflect a particular history or geography, conjuring up their own political resonances that seem especially significant for nascent efforts at nation-building and forging a new national identity.

But another illustration of Sudan’s past confronting its present lies in the red and black on Sudan’s economic ledger. Sudan’s oil future, and the potential bonanza to the south, has been well-discussed, but less so has been the state of Sudan’s debts. Jubilee Debt Campaign raise this point, asking how the $35bn of external debt held by the Sudanese government might be distributed between the ‘original’ Sudan and the new state.

The claim against the new state assuming part of the original Sudan’s debt liabilities is at least partly a moral one – debt incurred by a government unrepresentative and unsympathetic to the south, as three decades of civil war testify to. Arguments of ‘odious debt’ are made with regards to debts incurred by dictatorial regimes that now fall on the post-dictatorial government to repay, and there seems at least an intuitive fit with regards to south Sudan. The practical claim may be, additionally, that if a new government starts with a considerable burden to international debtors, its independence may be simply legal and symbolic, rather than substantive. But we’ll leave that element of how substantive sovereignty has to be to be meaningful (or even as a condition for statehood) for another time.

So the difficulties that south Sudan will face in the coming months and years relate not just to how the ethno-religious mixture of its population get along, or how its resource endowment is to be managed, because these can’t be fully grasped without the deeper, broader legacies that its history bequeaths. There is, alas, no reset button (unlike a computer game session when I royally mess things up). Looking towards a new, independent future in the tomorrow, will still have the hand of yesterday on its shoulder.

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