The world’s about to get bigger

Posted on January 9, 2011

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I used to have a giant A0 atlas when I was about 5 that I remember poring over intently. The ‘pages’ were eighth-inch thick cardboard and all the maps were printed in bright bold colours, and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I also had a GeoSafari (if Educational Insights, who make the unit, are reading this, I’m not averse to having my childhood rekindled with a new sample GeoSafari – mine broke when I was 10) which I couldn’t be torn away from. My friend Matty Benn had a project when he was 7 of drawing, colouring in and committing to memory all the flags of the world, which I helped with. All of which explains why I’m incredibly excited that today almost four million people are voting on creating the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

Voting began four hours ago when I was still asleep as the ideologicially- and mostly religiously-different southern Sudanese  went to the polls to rid themselves of the influence of the northern capital and government entirely. The ballot papers involve putting a thumbprint next to a picture of either a raised hand (for secession from the north) or a pair of closed hands (to stay the same) – because an awful lot of the voting populace are illiterate and can understand it that way. The polls will close on the 15th, and although barring widespread and near-totemic electoral fraud we know already that almost all the 3.9 million will vote for secession and the setting up of the newest nation in the globe’s panopoly, it’ll take another three weeks for the result to be ratified.

Something that would concern voters across most of the western world is that one prerequisite of a valid vote is that 60% of registered voters cast their ballot: turnout in our country and countless others is way below that. However there’s something quite different at stake – the chance to rule autonomously and to be free from northern meddling in their lives.

Like most things, the meddling of the northern government comes down to money, and is also partly a hangover of Sudan’s colonial past. Africa’s largest country currently runs impractically, with culturally and ethnically divisive tribes being forced together  in what can ironically (given the sheer size of the land it covers) be described as a sardine tin. That colonial powers also enforced completely arbitrary borders doesn’t help either.

The money part is thanks to oil. 75% of Sudan’s recordable oil revenue lies in what will be in a month’s time South Sudan, yet the northern government extract most of it and keep the majority of the money for projects in the north. As is often the case, the regions where the oil originates see barely a penny of the profit on their resources. The northern government are also accused of cooking the books to understate production, meaning they have to pay even less to the south for draining them of the one potential profit-making industry they have.

But hopefully, all that will soon change. The northern government have promised not to contest the public’s wish if (basically when) the referendum spits out a vote for secession. And excitingly, Matty Benn and I have another country’s flag, capital and population to add to our list and remember.

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy’s The Oil and The Glory has more on Sudan, including the impact of oil.

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