|If southern Sudan secedes from Khartoum, what will it mean for the rest of Africa? [EPA]
The past decade has seen the emergence of a number of new countries. But, with the exception of East Timor - which became the 21st century's first new sovereign state on May 20, 2002 - they are all still struggling to gain full recognition.
So what motivates constituencies within states to opt for independence?
The reasons vary from place to place. In Eastern Europe, Russia and the countries neighbouring it came together to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) largely for economic and military reasons. But after the establishment of the UN in 1945 and subsequent treaties guaranteeing security and peace, most countries within the USSR gradually started to denounce the union in favour of democratic and independent statehood. Repressive laws and adverse economic conditions further encouraged this.
In Asia, most countries that have declared independence were motivated by religious imperatives - Pakistan from India and, most recently, East Timor from Indonesia.
Africa, which has not been spared this phenomenon, has had its own unique set of challenges. Central to the African experience has been the lack of expertise shown by the post-independence political elites in governing their countries and managing natural resources. Added to this was the impact of the Cold War, during which African countries were forced to take sides and many states were rendered ineffective. Tribal prejudices and preferential service delivery have dominated African politics.
But despite these different factors which have contributed to constituencies across the world seeking independence, a few common themes are also apparent - the failure of their respective governments to provide basic freedoms to their citizens, to guarantee full citizenship for all and to deliver basic services.
Africa's newest nation?
After years of struggle the people of southern Sudan are on the verge of gaining autonomy from the Arab-dominated north. For decades, the largest country in Africa and the Arab world has been riddled by conflict between the Arab/Muslim north and the Christian and animist Nilotes of the south. Over the years, the cause of the people of southern Sudan has gained momentum and international legitimacy - rendering Omar al-Bashir's regime in Khartoum a pariah.
In January 2011, those from Sudan's oil-producing south are due to vote in a referendum on whether they should secede and form Africa's newest nation - a plebiscite promised under a 2005 accord that ended decades of north-south civil war. It is widely expected that the southern Sudanese will vote to secede.
Many argue that the Arab imperialism of the north has sought to obliterate other cultures, particularly in the south of the country. It is this imperialism that Atem Garang, the deputy speaker of the legislative assembly of the government of southern Sudan, says will make it difficult for southerners to vote for unity.
But Arab imperialism is not the only problem encountered by the southern Sudanese. There is also the uneven delivery of basic services and the uneven distribution of the income generated by oil.
It is estimated that 85 per cent of Sudan's oil is sourced in the south. But while southern Sudan contributes significantly to the government's revenues, the people of the south receive fewer benefits from that money.
These factors have amplified the call for independence.
Sending a message?
But what will happen if southern Sudan gains independence from Khartoum?
There are already rumblings of secession in east Sudan and Darfur. But the effects are likely to resonate far beyond the borders of southern Sudan.
The exclusion - by design or elections - of minority groups from positions of power remains the biggest problem facing Africa. The only way these groups can ever attain power is through coups or secession. If the southern Sudanese were to secede from the north it could therefore have very serious political implications for the rest of the continent.
The African Union, which consists of members facing similar challenges in their own countries, might be reluctant to support an independent southern Sudan. The two most important members and architects of the African Union - Nigeria and South Africa - have groups with similar ambitions within their borders.
In South Africa, rightwing Afrikaner parties have been calling for their own racially exclusive state since the dawn of democracy there in 1994. While in Nigeria, environmental devastation and the government's failure to distribute oil wealth has inspired the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a group with separatist tendencies.
The secession of southern Sudan and African Union recognition of it might therefore send a very clear message to these groups in their struggle for autonomy.
Thembisa Fakude is the manager of Al Jazeera's Johannesburg bureau.