Will Southern Sudan be a precedent for Somaliland?

If Southern Sudan successfully secedes, will other African pseudo-states follow suit? Guest-blogging at the Christian Science Monitor, Alex Thurston takes a look at Somaliland:

There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree of stability than other regions of Somalia. Recently Somaliland successfully transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another, reinforcing democratic credentials that outshine those of many independent African nations. As crisis continues in southern and central Somalia, moreover, the US and other Western powers are showing greater willingness to consider recognizing Somaliland or at least treating it, de facto, as its own nation.

He also links to an Economist interview with Somaliland's foreign minister, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, discussing the referendum (my emphasis): 

If the international community accepts South Sudan’s independence, that opens the door for us as well. It would mean that the principle that African borders should remain where they were at the time of independence would change. It means that if Southern Sudan can go their way, that should open the door for Somaliland’s independence as well and that the international position that Somaliland not be recognised separate from Somalia has changed.

I'm skeptical that the international community's support for Southern Sudanese independence sets much of a precedent outside Sudan. There was similar talk of nationalist movements being emboldened immediately after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, including talk about Somaliland. 

The fact is, new states tend to be recognized by the international community on a case by case basis, and the laws and norms governing who gets to be a country are remarkably arbitrary. Precedents are far less important than they appear. Kosovo and Southern Sudan both had the advantage of having recently been at war with regimes accused of crimes against humanity. The Kremlin may have claimed that Kosovo's independence was a precedent for its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia several months later, but it actually had a lot more to do with things coming to a head between Russia and Georgia. 

So I don't think Southern Sudan's positive reception indicates an urge to redraw more African borders, no matter how problematic those borders are. (See Bill Easterly's new paper on the artificial states problem.) Somaliland may have a good case for independence, but it will have to get there on its own. 


What's the next move in the Ivory Coast?

Over the course of the last month, the international community has thrown everything it's got at the Ivory Coast's refusing-to-leave-office president, Laurent Gbagbo. They've tried sanctions. They've sent envoys. They've vowed to increase the number of U.N. peacekeepers. And they've cut off all funds to the Gbagbo camp. Barack Obama offered Gbagbo a dignified exit with amnesty in the United States. Even the idea of a unity government was floated, in which the widely recognized winner of the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, would join Gbagbo in a cabinet. Nothing has worked; and despite weeks of standoff, little has changed.

But the worse news is that the world is fast running out of plays to run.

The central conundrum isn't, in fact, tactical. It's strategic. Everyone from the African Union to Foggy Bottom to Beijing wants Gbagbo out and Ouattara in. That would be good news, except that the situation is dramatically different within the Ivory Coast. The population is actually quite divided. If Gbagbo were removed forcefully, it really could respark civil war.

So although the foreign powers have decided to get tough with Gbagbo, they really can't afford to get too tough. Not that military intervention is popular either; Ghana has said it won't be involved in such an action, and Nigeria is preparing for its own contentious elections at home -- hardly the time to engage in military adventures abroad. No Western power will intervene -- and the only one that cares enough about tiny Ivory Coast to do so is France, the country's much-distrusted colonial power. Paris couldn't touch the current situation without lighting it on fire.

Oxford economist Paul Collier had an idea this morning, as he wrote in the Guardian: to convince the military in the Ivory Coast to stop supporting Gbagbo. In theory that could work; Gbagbo is only able to remain in the presidential palace because of the military's support. But as I mentioned before, this isn't just about a few fringe supporters. Gbagbo's got 50 percent of Ivorians behind him.  

I have to say, I'm fresh out of ideas too. My favored tactic had been to recruit former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to knock a few heads together. He's a Big Man even among big men -- someone who doesn't even give you the option of disagreeing. But apparently the West African regional group ECOWAS had the same idea, to little avail. Obasanjo went to the Ivory Coast over the weekend and, well, Gbagbo is still in power. 

What I do know is that the country's people probably have the best sense of where this is going. And they are betting on the future with their feet. Yesterday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that some 600 Ivorians are entering Liberia as refugees every day; there are some 25,000 in the neighboring country so far. And 16,000 more have fled their homes within the Ivory Coast. The U.N. is concerned enough about the influx to start building permanent camps.

If there's a larger lesson here, it's that ousting a strongman is never as easy as we'd like to think. It may be an obvious point, but in the particulars it's actually profound. Even if the entire world musters its political might, the Laurent Gbagbo's of the world -- Robert Mugabe, Than Shwe, Kim Jong Il -- would still be around.