A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.

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Snow boots for Islamist terrorists

Sweden was the subject of a recent bomb plot gone wrong and five men were arrested in Denmark on 29 December on suspicion of planning a bombing raid. Has Islamist terrorism come to Scandinavia?

The chilly winds and blizzards of Sweden and Denmark are far-removed from the blasting sun and desert heat of the Middle East but Islam is a powerful and growing presence in Northern Europe. It has overtaken Catholicism to become Norway’s largest minority religion. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Sweden. After Lutheranism, Islam is the biggest religion in Denmark.

Mass immigration in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from the Muslim south-east corner of Europe, Somalia and Pakistan, has prompted the development of Islam as a serious faith in the three Scandinavian countries. National reaction to the growth of Islam has courted controversy.

The Jyllands-Posten cartoons uproar in 2005 was the first major sticking-point to development between this part of Europe and Islam. The men arrested earlier this week in Denmark have been accused of wanting to kill “as many people as possible [at the newspaper’s offices]”, according to Danish officials. The fact that these alleged threats and confirmed arrests have occurred five years after the cartoons were published show that the reach of Islam is growing.

Cartoons were also at the centre of controversy three years ago. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, pictured Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout. Mr Vilks has since taken precautions against possible retribution.

Islam has not suffered the same level of inertia and religious apathy which has afflicted the Christian denominations across Europe. Young Muslims are born into a growing faith of potency and totality. Their non-Muslim peers simply do not worry about religion that much at all. And it is this perceived affront to the standard Scandinavian secular-based lifestyle by a popular and powerful minority religion that has caused an upswell in indignation towards Muslims in the region.

The traditional Scandinavian mentality may also be a root cause of the increase in terror plots. By attacking a liberal, less outspoken area of the majority-Christian and Western world, the direct opposite of the US, the UK and Israel, Islamist fundamentalists are demonstrating their capabilities to challenge religious and political ideologies across the globe, no matter how quiet and non-confrontational those countries appear on the surface.

Getting away from it all in Asia

At a time of problematic politics on both sides of the pond, what will the impact be of Obama’s visit to South Asia and David Cameron’s trip to the Far East?

The coalition government in the UK has spent much of the last few weeks swinging the cutting axe at nearly every government department and it appears that now Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are for now, at least, having a change of scene. The one facing them at home is hostile and on 10 November thousands of students demonstrated violently in central London against the proposed rise in university tuition fees. Public reaction has also been negative to funding slashing of child benefit, housing benefit and the defence budget. The Church of England has raised concern over the impact on the poor from the specific benefit reduction and reorganisation that has been planned.

But Cameron and his coalition colleagues have been sipping wine and trying to secure trade deals on the other side of the world. They are not running away directly but the change of scene at a time of political unrest may well allow them a period of reflection to consider their changes. They can also catch their breath; the Government’s reforms have been rolled out continuously since the general election.

A couple of countries to the south, this week Barack Obama has chosen to spend the aftermath of the Democrats’ painful losses at the mid-term elections on 2 November meeting his old school-teachers in Indonesia. As the Tea Party basks in the glow of election success, Obama has been wooing Indonesia in a similar way to the way he courted the Muslim world in 2009.

Indonesia stands at a crossroads, geopolitically: it is the largest Muslim majority nation in the world and a massive regional player for ASEAN. It has large sway in its region through its seat on the G20 and in that sense is similar to Brazil as the most important partner in a regional club. The administration in Jakarta needs to ensure that its leadership does not become confused or stall as other local players look up to the major power and faltering on its part could lead to introversion and a failure to keep up with the interchanging pace of foreign policy discussion.

This latest outreach to the Muslim world by the US President seems to be an attempt to move policy discussion into the international sphere after such devastation domestically. Cameron and Obama are now moving on to the G20 and with the Cancun climate change summit coming up next month, both leaders will probably be quietly hopeful that they can ride out the current waves of protest and election defeat overseas.