Splitting Countries: The End of Expansionism Part I An Editorial by Nick Bernold


We all remember Darfur. Or at least, we all remember vaguely hearing about a place called Darfur where atrocities were being committed by the thousands. Maybe we remember celebrity commercials asking for donations over pictures of malnourished children. Most Americans could not find Darfur, or even Sudan (of which Darfur is a western region), on a map, and even fewer could identify the cause of the conflict. Though this is not surprising, it is a shame, since it is relevant to an intriguing political drama that will be culminating within the next few months.

Since antiquity, Sudan has shared a close relationship with its northern neighbor, Egypt. The Nubian people who have lived fixedly in Sudan for the past ten thousand years have often been more or less allied with the Egyptians, either by choice or by force. Throughout their long joint history, Egypt and northern Sudan have taken similar courses. Once under the control of the Pharaohs, the fertile banks of the Nile fell successively under Greek, Roman, and finally Arabic influence. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Europe and the Mediterranean Basin collapsed into a  level of chaos rarely seen in the Historic Age. Mohammedan conquerors swept through the region throughout the following centuries, each time solidifying their power and replacing the heavily Hellenistic culture that had preceded them (though to their infinite credit, they did not destroy it, a fact that helped preserve a huge part of ancient civilization for us to study today. Without Islam and the respect its followers maintained for history and culture, our understanding of these concepts would be unimaginably different; in the Dark Ages of Europe, for example, almost all remnants of previous culture were lost, not to resurface for a millennium). It is mostly Mohammedan culture, combined with certain Nubian features, that remains in the north of Sudan today. In contrast, the southern part of Sudan remained under Nubian influence. Consequently, the north and south today are very different. The southerners are mainly subsistence farmers who embrace either Christianity or traditional Animist religions; they have much darker skin than their northern countrymen, the overwhelmingly Muslim, traditionally nomadic descendants of the first Mohammedan conquerers.

This was already the demographic layout when the British arrived on the Sudanese scene in the late nineteenth century. As European powers realized that they had colonized almost all of Africa, friction mounted. The British were firmly established in Egypt, but they were afraid that if the French or Belgians were to take over Sudan (then under the control of an independent government that had thrown out the Egyptians a decade earlier), their claim would be threatened. Therefore, in 1896 Britain supported the invasion of Sudan. In theory, it was to be under the governance of Egypt, but in practice it was the British who were in control. Realizing the potential conflicts between the developed north and backward south, the British forbade anyone north of the tenth parallel from going south and anyone from below the eighth parallel from going north. This served a twofold purpose: firstly, it prevented the northward spread of malaria from the south, and secondly, it removed the competition of Islam for missionaries trying to convert the native population to Christianity. This measure was crucial in the development of the situation we see today: it can account for both the difference in religious preference and the disparity in wealth between the richer north and the poorer south. 
Strangely, when the British left in 1956, Sudan became independent as one country instead of two. Though hardly shocking in light of the catastrophic problems that the British caused in their willy-nilly divvying-up of former colonies, a process involving the creation of arbitrary borders with no regard for ethnic groups and religions, it is surprising that they did not press for the division of Sudan at its independence, since they had clearly been aware of the dangers entailed in the differences between north and south. 
Indeed, since breaking away from colonial powers, Sudan has endured almost constant strife. The killings in Darfur were just a continuation of past conflicts. As has always been the case, the bases of the conflict were race and religion. Rebel groups composed of former southern soldiers attacked the northern-dominated government. Along with a group of nomadic Arab mercenaries known as the Janjaweed, the government fought back, causing incredible slaughter and displacement in the rebel stronghold of Darfur. Though the Darfur conflict still persists, the Second Sudanese Civil War, which was a large part of what Western media called “the Darfur conflict,” ended in 2005. One of the provisions of the peace treaty, along with giving the south limited independence, was the establishment of 2011 as the year in which there would be a referendum in the south to determine whether it wanted to become a completely autonomous state.
Politicians expect the vote to clearly be in favor of secession and remain cautiously optimistic that the northern government will consent without further bloodshed. If this were to happen, it would also play a role in ending the Darfur conflict, since it could provide incentive for the rebels to negotiate with the promise that they could one day secure an autonomous or semi-autonomous state through diplomacy. 
Regardless of whether this chapter in Sudanese history ends peacefully or sinks back into bloodshed, it is difficult not to think back upon the days of British rule. The British were terrified of other imperial powers besting them. They did not know that in twenty years, The Great War would be fought over these colonies—but not in the distant lands of Africa. Right on the European continent, millions would be slaughtered—not Africans, but European boys who had never left their hamlets. They did not imagine that sixty years later almost all the colonies would be freed, and that reparations would have to be payed. However, they could have known that a civil war would break out between the antithetical north and south of Sudan. The Crown was blinded by contemporary ambition. In the ultimate age of Expansionism, no one wanted to be left behind. It has now taken the major part of fifty years to rectify the error and hopefully bring about a peaceful settlement between the two belligerents. 
This is not too novel a scenario. The past fifty years have seen a long list of countries break apart into new ones. First, we had the decolonization of Africa and Asia in the fifties and sixties. Then we had South American conflicts. Over the last few decades, we have faced the effects of the demise of the USSR. The face of Eastern Europe has changed drastically over the past twenty years, with many countries experiencing conflicts similar to the one in Sudan. We will now see another example of unintended consequences in foreign policy, this time in  Western Europe. 
Stay Tuned for the next installment of this editorial next week….

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