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On South Sudan: Ethnic Minorities and Political Autonomy

With Ethiopian peacekeepers en route to try and secure calm in Abyei, a contested region that lies on the border between Sudan and Southern Sudan, Dr. Evgeni Klauber considers how the future of the region will determine relations between what will soon be two sovereign states.

By Dr. Evgeni Klauber

Earlier this week, the leaders of the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement agreed to withdraw their troops from the contested Abyei region, after the United States requested that the UN Security Council authorize the deployment of peacekeepers from Addis Ababa to monitor the problematic region. Western commentators argued that this is a good way to ease the tension along the border region between the North and South – a border that will divide two sovereign states, which will declare their independence on July 9. In January of this year, the United States and the international community celebrated with the people of South Sudan their future indepencence – a political outcome of the referendum in which 98 percent of southerners agreed to secede from the North and to establish their new independent state.

Issues of state building, nation building, and political arrangements with ethnic minorities thus arise once again. What is the best political arrangement that the future state of Southern Sudan should adopt in order to solve the problem of ethnic groups, such as Misseriya and Dinka in Abyei? Should it give these ethnic minorities group rights to preserve their culture within Southern Sudan or should the newly emerged state limit them to individual rights, which would allow them to preserve their culture in the private sphere, but not to sustain their uniqueness as a group? Can political autonomy provide a feasible and peaceful solution for the minorities in the region?

The political status of Abyei, which is situated in the border area between the North and the South, has yet to be decided. The Southern region is rich in oil – about 80 percent of Sudan’s oil is in the south). Various ethnic minorities live in the South – for example, the Misseriya and Dinka, who identify with the country’s North and South, respectively. If the Misseriya aren’t well-treated, they will know to ask for military assistance from the militant, failed and disintegrating North. The basis for the future conflict can already be identified: earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accused the militant forces of the South (SPLA) for attacking the North’s forces (SAF) in the disputed region. Although Western observers claimed that the South did not initiate any violence, the president gave order to his fighter planes to bomb the civilian population in the region. Primary victims of the bombing last month were members of the Dinka ethnic group, who were historically located in the Abyei region and for the thirty last years have suffered from attacks from the North. This bombing of the Dinka earlier this month is quintessential, after years of marginalization policies along with the attempts to drive them from the region – a process that would provide the North with the political claim to the area even after the declaration of the South’s independence, which will most probably include the Abyei area.

Under the agreement signed in 2005, the Abyei region is to hold a referendum through which it will decide whether it wants to join the Southern state or to stay with the North. The problem is that al-Bashir makes great efforts to clean up Abyei from Dinka and to insert nomadic Misseriya tribes who are closer in their political views to the regime in Khartoum, the capital of the North. This deliberate policy toward the Dinka was developed to strengthen the North’s claim to the future of Abyei.

According to materialist logic, if the disputed area, rich in oil, lies in the Southern state, then the North will do anything in its power to regain control over the region. This could entail supporting rebels who identify with the North, explaining to the international community how its diaspora is being oppressed by the “bloody” Southern regime, and investing efforts to increase the presence of the tribal Misseriya identified with the North in order to gain a foothold in the region. But materialistic logic is not always right: states do not necessarily tend to intervene to protect their diasporas even in commercially benefical places. For example, see Russia: it did not intervene on behalf of the Russian-speakers in the coal-rich Donbas, or on behalf of the Russian-speaking minority in Kazakhstan. Russia did intervene, however, in 2008, on behalf of ethnic minorities who identified themselves with Russia but did not provide the Russian state with unique economic benefits. This was in the case, of course, of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two autonomous regions inside Georgia, which after the events of August 2008 were recognized by Russia as sovereign states.

Intervention for minorities who are politically autonomous is more common. States intervene on behalf of organized groups – those groups that have enough institutional resources to become sovereign nations. If so, what explains the intervention of one state on behalf ethnic minorities in newly emerged states? I would argue that what explains political intervention in newly emerged states is a political arrangement, such as autonomy, that makes an ethnic minority more “eligible” for such assistance. If the newly emerged state provides an ethnic minority with political autonomy (self-rule within the territory of a sovereign state), then the intervention of the homeland state on behalf of this minority is more likely. Countries tend to intervene for organized minorities with functional elites that control already existing organizational resources. Russians intervened in Georgia for Russian-speaking autonomous regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but did not intervene to assist minorities that are not organized by means of political autonomy (like Russian-speakers in Baltic states). Armenians intervened in the autonomous Nagorno – Karabakh region on behalf of their Armenian diaspora in Azerbaijan, but they did not intervene to assist the not-autonomous Armenian diaspora in Georgia.

If that is the case, what should we expect in Sudan? If Southern Sudan’s future government grants Muslim minorities in the Abyei region politically autonomous status, this may lead to a renewed conflict. After gaining political autonomy, the Muslim minority will acquire organizational resources, symbols of statehood, and will very quickly formulate its claim for annexation back to Northern Sudan or for the establishment of a new sovereign state in the region. This scenario could end in another civil war. It is important to note that political autonomy is not always the wrong solution: autonomy can be also a useful tool that secures group rights for ethnic minorities. The solution of political autonomy worked relatively well (as it turned out recently) in the Basque country, Catalonia, South Tyrol, and Scotland. But political autonomy may lead to violence in the context of the newly emerged states, which build their nations at a faster pace. For newly emerged countries, nationalism is not only a project to acquire an independent state but also a tool to establish and to accumulate political legitimacy. Newly emerged states are often “nationalizing states” with an accelerated pace of nation and state building. Autonomous minorities in newly emerged nationalizing states may choose an exit strategy that leads to secession if they feel scared. Fast nation building might scare autonomous minorities: the newly emerged state can change its language overnight, for example. Autonomous Muslim minorities, then, may rise in the future against the government in the South – which will increase the chances of the North’s intervention. This scenario can lead to more violence in the region.

Let’s turn now to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I argue that political autonomy is an originating mechanism responsible for the genesis of an institution, which make ethnic mobilization possible. Imagine a newly emerged Palestinian state with a Jewish minority in Hebron. The first scenario would be to integrate Jews into this newly emerged Palestinian nation – an unlikely scenario due to the religious differences between the two groups. Another scenario would be to provide Jews in the newly emerged Palestinian state with group rights – i.e. granting them political autonomy. This scenario will lead to them acquiring institutional resources of self-governance that would make Israeli intervention on behalf of its autonomous Jewish diaspora more likely. We cannot imagine that Israel will intervene in Syria on behalf of ill-treated Jews, because the Jewish minority in Syria is not politically autonomous. Autonomous Jews in the newly emerged Palestinian state, however, will be a different story. Here, chances are that Israel will intervene once group rights or even individual rights of this autonomous institutionalized diaspora will be violated. As long as Israeli intervention in the possibly-emerging Palestinian state depends on the political arrangement between the Jewish minority and the Palestinian state, the status of Jews living within its borders should be a top priority for resolution.

Dr. Evgeni Klauber received his PhD in Comparative Politics and International Relations at the University of Delaware, specializing in ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Republics. A Fulbright scholar, he is now back at Tel-Aviv University as a visiting lecturer. His current research concentrates on regime change in Russia and the post-Soviet Bloc.

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    1. Michael W.

      Very interesting essay.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Steve Paterno

      Good attempt by Evgani Klauber, but unfortunately, he has little knowledge of the subject matter by making wrong assumptions that the Meseriya is going to be a minority Muslim group in the would be independent South Sudan. Regardless of the status of Abyei, the Meseriya will never be part of an independent South Sudan. They will remain to be under the administration of the Northern government even though they will be allowed (under agreement) to migrate South seasonally for grazing land and access to water.

      Since Klauber speciality is in ethnic conflicts, he would have make a good case studies on South Sudanese brewing ethnic conflicts within the context of an independent South Sudan. If his interest is on Muslim minority, there are also authentic South Sudanese Muslims in which he can make a case for as oppose to the Meseriya who are not part of the South and will never be.

      Steve Paterno

      Reply to Comment
    3. Leif

      I think Dr. Klauber’s argument is sound with regards to the possible violent outcomes for autonomous minorities in newly emerging states. R.C. Theory, when applied to the perspective of minority groups, dictates that the actors will act in their own self interest even if it entails reaching out to a regime that maybe faltering on the verge of collapse. I believe that South Sudan, as a newly emerging state will not grant autonomy to the Misseriya in Anyei, should they decide to stay in South Sudan. Al Bashir and his weakening state WILL create as much trouble as possible to keep South Sudan weak, even though the state is oil rich. Al Bashir is seeking strategic depth in Abeyi, the same way the Pakistani’s are behaving in Afghanistan. Good examples with regard to Jews in Palestine, Russians in Georgia, etc. I agree with Dr. Clabber’s argument.

      Reply to Comment

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