Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on January 9, 2011 regarding independence from Sudan proper, the largest nation in Africa. The upcoming referendum raises hopes and concerns for the country’s future. On the one hand, if properly supervised, it could lead to peace, which most Sudanese have never experienced. On the other hand, if not closely monitored and both sides properly engaged, the country and possibly even the region could collapse into chaos. Authorities on both sides have already been accused of harassment and intimidation. With so much at stake, the international community needs to carefully engage both sides without forgetting about other situations—such as Darfur. The referendum will hopefully be the last step in a long, drawn-out, bloody civil war that has resulted in millions of destroyed lives.
Since 1956, when Sudan gained its independence from Great Britain, the country has been embroiled in two prolonged civil wars that have led to immense devastation and destruction. These conflicts originated from hostilities between the North (predominately black Arab Muslims) and the South (largely non-Muslim, non-Arab). They stemmed from a British policy of divide and rule that left both sides isolated from each other, and which planted the seeds of the conflict for the years to come. The first civil war began in 1955 and ended in 1972, however fighting broke out again in 1983. This second conflict has been raging off and on since and has led to more than four million displaced people and over two million deaths.
Throughout the conflict we have seen a number of accords, procedures, and benchmarks (such as the Machakos Protocol and various other peace agreements) that invariably failed. It is the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005 by the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army and the government of Omar al-Bashir that frames today’s current political situation. The CPA created a new interim constitution that installed a Government of National Unity whereby giving the Vice President position to the South and dividing up the oil revenues equally. More importantly, with the signing of the CPA, the south was granted autonomy for six years to be followed by a referendum regarding independence from the North in 2011. It is here that we find ourselves, in the tense and anxious period, waiting for the vote scheduled for Sunday, January 9, 2011. While many would argue that independence for the South is the best option for Sudan, it is not without its problems.
Looking deeper into the situation, we see that many obstacles arise that have yet to be addressed. Obstacles include disagreements between the North and South over border demarcation of the newly founded southern republic, if the referendum is to pass, which many believe it will. Because there is no consensus on a proper border, this brings up a whole host of other issues. For instance, numerous nomadic peoples live in the region, and their grazing rights and freedom of movement become a matter in question. The issue of citizenship also becomes an important issue for nomads. In the past, they have always moved through regions that would become international borders patrolled by soldiers. Consequently, these peoples’ livelihood would be at stake. We saw this same type of situation in Somalia with many of the nomads perishing or moving to cities and becoming unemployed and a burden on the state.
Add to this the fact that the post-referendum separation process is still ambiguous on other issues as well, including but not limited to oil revenue distribution and the division of the national debt. Likewise, the oil-rich state of Abyei will have a simultaneous referendum on whether to become part of Southern Sudan. Either way it votes, Abyei will further complicate the solution for oil revenue-sharing. What we get is a tumultuous set of circumstances that will need to be monitored intently by the international community so as not to add to the suffering of the Sudanese people.
Furthermore, the southern region is extremely underdeveloped with many lacking access to basic services such as water, sanitation, and health care. Additionally, transportation and security are sketchy at most and often lacking in many parts of the region, making it extremely hard to educate citizens about the referendum and getting them out to vote.
Sum all of these obstacles up and you are still left with the question, what happens if the North does not accept the results of the referendum, should the South choose to become independent? This could not only lead to yet another civil war in Sudan but could escalate into a regional war involving Sudan’s neighbors. Another question we should ask, will the North honor the statements it has made? The North has claimed that it will let all Southerners vote who live in the North or have been displaced there. Nonetheless this could be an empty promise, as authorities in Khartoum could make it extremely difficult for them to vote, such as by deploying large security forces at voting stations to discourage Southerners from going in. All of the predicaments listed above could lead to frightening outcomes, therefore it will be vital for the United Nations and international community, including the US and the CPA guarantors, to make sure that the voting process and outcomes go as smoothly as possible.
Independence is still the best option for the South. The South could end decades of living under domination, abuse, and control by the Khartoum government. It is not a viable option to have perpetual civil war with intermittent periods of peace. Fear of violence and hardship should not be a way of life. If properly transitioned into two states, with supervision and assistance from the international community, while at the same time pushing for peace and justice for all the marginalized groups in the north and south, the people of Sudan could finally see peace. The Southerners might no longer feel as if they were pawns on Khartoum’s chessboard; the North might finally be at peace with its southern neighbor.
The referendum has already had a large impact on the Sudanese people and it has not yet taken place. In particular, it has redirected all international eyes towards the north/south border region, with Darfur slipping back in to the shadows. It is reported that the Sudanese government in Khartoum has taken this opportunity to step up pressure on rebel groups in Darfur making life difficult on the refugees and citizens in the region. Roads have been closed and attacks have been stepped up on “potential rebel hideouts” with little attention from the international community. The international community is acting like a pendulum swinging from one problem to another leaving the people at the other end of the swing vulnerable to attacks, starvation, and a host of other dangers to their lives. As stated in a report released by the Enough Project, the international community needs to “stop addressing one challenge in Sudan at the expense of the other.” This statement will become increasingly important as the days wind down and the clock hits zero on the referendum vote.
The referendum will, in all likelihood, create a brand new country. The new Southern Sudan would be the dream come true for millions of people. It could then be a center of democracy and peace. A lot of work is to be done, if that is to become a reality.