Global Policy Forum

Southern Sudan's Milestone Referendum

Voting has begun in South Sudan, in a referendum to determine whether the semi-autonomous region will become an independent nation.  For many, the outcome is a done deal, with the secession likely to succeed.  The impact on the region, however, is far more uncertain and may only become apparent in the medium to long term.  South Sudan is faced with extreme poverty and poor infrastructure and must settle more than 190,000 displaced people.  In this context, the viability of an independent nation is questionable.

By Deborah Jerome

January 7, 2011

Six years after the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) ended decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan, citizens of semi-autonomous South Sudan will start voting Sunday on whether to become an independent country. The long-anticipated referendum has sparked concerns about disputes over the rich oil fields on the border between north and south and worries over another civil war. Most recent reports suggest that the secession referendum itself will go smoothly (NYT) and will almost certainly pave the way toward the formal declaration of a new country this summer, but the United Nations has voiced concerns (Reuters) about restrictions on the press and arbitrary arrests in the walkup to the vote.

Sudan has been roiled by internecine warfare between the north and the south since its independence from Britain in 1956. The most recent civil war, which lasted about two decades beginning in 1983, killed more than two million people and displaced an estimated four million more. This conflict was rooted largely in the north's economic, political, and social domination of the generally non-Muslim, non-Arab south. President Omar al-Bashir--who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan's western Darfur region--had for years pressed Arabization and Islamization policies, but now says he will back the referendum results (AlMasryAlYoum) and pledges to help his "southern brothers."

The 2005 peace agreement that ended the worst of the fighting between north and south provided for alternatives other than secession. As former U.S. envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson points out, the period between 2005 and the referendum "was intended to give the north the opportunity to make unity an attractive alternative" (ForeignPolicy), yet, he says, Khartoum has played a more obstructionist than helpful role.

Even if the referendum goes off without a hitch, most experts believe there are plenty of minefields ahead for Sudan, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, called "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence." John Prendergast of the anti-genocide Enough Project warned that the six months after the referendum are the most dangerous and could become President Barack Obama's "Rwanda moment" (Reuters), referring to President Bill Clinton's failure to stop the slaughter of eight hundred thousand people in 1994.

The north and south will have to finalize a separation agreement as well as reach agreement about sharing revenue from the oil fields that straddle the north-south border. Since the CPA, the south and the north split southern oil revenues equally, with almost three-quarters of the daily five hundred thousand barrel output coming from the south, according to the BBC. Northern Sudan (VOA) could lose about half that revenue after the south's secession. Concerns about the volatility of the oil issue have meant the postponement of a referendum on the final status of Abyei (MiddleEastOnline), an oil-rich district claimed by both north and south-allied groups.

While many in southern Sudan seem to welcome independence and hope for a bonanza from oil revenues, recent UN statistics suggest that the region has a long way to go. More than 190,000 people in southern Sudan have been displaced by interethnic and armed conflicts in the region over the past year, according to the United Nations, and the poverty rate is over 50 percent. If all goes as expected, and a new African nation is born in July, the likely new president of south Sudan, Salva Kiir, and likely vice president, Riek Machar, will have their work cut out for them.


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