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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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.

The fine line between defence and politics

On Monday 18 October the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, was promoted to second-in-command of his country’s Central Military Commission, the government body which controls the 2.2 million-strong army. It is a posting which is undoubtedly seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency in 2013 in a nation where the military and political promotions go hand-in-hand.

The next day, 5000 miles away in London, the coalition government led by the Conservatives announced wide-ranging defence budget cuts. The run-up to the publication of the ‘Strategic Defence Review’ was dominated by criticism from the opposition Labour party, the public, soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. Even the Defence Secretary himself was found to have been railing against the cuts he was asked to find by George Osborne, the British Chancellor. The outcome of the report has been a source of contention and paradoxy: the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ark Royal, is to be retired four years earlier than planned but two new aircraft carriers will be built. However, there will be no British planes for use on the ships for 9 years. In addition to the naval cuts, the number of tanks and artillery pieces will be slashed by 40% and up to 20,000 service jobs will be at risk.

The government has stressed that a streamlining of a mismanaged and economically wasteful budget was imperative but there is no doubt that the British military standing in the world will be severely reduced, and any future conflicts will probably be impossible without allies’ aid.

But this notion does not apply to the UK alone. The Falklands War in 1982 was a purely British-Argentine affair, although each combatant did receive oral backing, Argentina from some fellow South Americans and Spain, and the UK from the US and Chile. Times have advanced though and if tensions rise once more in the South Atlantic, then Argentina would be able to call on direct military support from friends on the continent, notably Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Britain would be unable to respond as it did in 1982 and would have to seek out allies of its own.

The current Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, reshone the spotlight on Las Malvinas last weekend through Twitter when she labelled British soldiers carrying out exercises on East Falkland island ‘pirates’. Chavez also joined in online, recalling for the return of the archipelago to Argentina.

Looking further north, there is a different type of military deployment occurring in Colombia and Mexico. Both countries have large-scale deployment internally, as presidents Santos and Calderon look to conquer the drugs gangs. Mexico has sent the greatest number of soldiers to the frontline, and has also increased the remit of the navy and its marines, who are regularly involved in operations inland, not just in coastal areas. The gangsters are ingenious, and only the armed forces have the firepower to engage with the gangs, and the know-how to intercept seaborne missions and underwater deliveries via miniature submarines, although these conflicts have led to a massive death toll over the last four years, with more than 28,000 killed.

Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the two African countries which are consistently in the current military news regarding Africa. Somalia hits the headlines for the ongoing unrest and firefights between the Al-Shabab militia and government forces, with the armed piracy situation adding to the problem. And the DRC is in the news for the gross abuses of villagers carried out by the army. The African Union (AU) provides peacekeeping elements to both these nations, among others, and it is in Africa where we see this type of military sanctioning and control the most in the current climate.

Looking back across the Indian Ocean, Burma has been under the control of a military regime for the past 22 years, and any attempts to promote democracy are dealt a fierce rebuke. Upcoming elections will be closed to outside observers, disallowing direct comment on the campaigns and results. Indeed, as Indian Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked on Thursday 21 October, only Burma’s closest allies, (which he cited as India, China and Thailand), have enough sway within the governing junta to be able to argue for democracy or promote greater transparency regarding human rights. Burma has an omnipotent role for the military in daily life in the country, but it is not the only Asian country to place such great value on the standing of the armed forces.

Last week, North Korea’s rulers named the present leader Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un as a general, and the foreign media (which was allowed within the borders, albeit under tight monitoring) was quick to point out the proximity of military high-command to political office. It certainly seems that Kim Jong-un, the dictator’s youngest son, will replace his father as the head of the country, but such a transition would have been extremely difficult without first giving him a prominent military role.

South Korea has US backing but has been keen to extend the diplomatic arm in recent months, refusing heavy-handed retaliative action after its neighbours sunk a warship in May. With Australia and New Zealand playing minor roles in Afghanistan, there remains the possibility that they could find themselves getting more and more involved with the nations to their north in the future.