Southern Sudanese men queue outside the University of Juba polling center to vote on bringing south Sudan a step closer to becoming the world's newest state.
/ AFP/Phil Moore
A historic referendum may officially seal the fate of Africa’s largest country, long dominated by an Islamic regime in the capital, at the expense of an oppressed Christian majority in the south. But whether the vote will bring genuine reconciliation and peace in a region long- plagued by ethnic violence remains a poignant question.
Twenty years of civil-war between the South and North resulting in over two million dead and millions displaced, failed to solve Sudan’s ethnic and religious divide. Then in 2005, a painstaking American and British sponsored peace-plan allowed autonomy of the south and leading to the current vote.
The Khartoum rulers had little choice as the long running conflict in the South was superseded by the more high profile and brutal war in Darfur. That inter-Islamic Darfur conflict and its humanitarian disaster grabbed headlines and took some pressure off Southern Sudan and its embattled population of eight million.
During British rule, the Anglo/Egyptian Sudan was wisely administered separately on the North/South axis. At independence the vast land became dominated by the Arab North.
The new nation about to emerge from the referendum reflects the ethnic and religious fault lines which have long plagued Sudan; the Muslim North/Christian/animist South. Add local tribal tensions and the future becomes cloudy.
Still South Sudan holds most of the natural resources especially the oil which has lubricated both the fast-found wealth in the capital Khartoum and equally tied Sudan particularly close to the People’s Republic of China, the country’s largest trade partner. It is not entirely clear how the revenues from the oil will be split between South and North. Equally as Africa’s newest state is about to emerge, Beijing’s diplomats have prepared for the inevitable by offering to cooperate with the South Sudan government as to ensure continued oil supplies.
The alluring chimera of petro-dollars aside, South Sudan, despite its political optimism, holds a pitiful socio/economic hand when it comes to infrastructure; there are only forty miles of paved road in an area the size of France. Eighty percent of the population are illiterate. Despite natural resources, the region is poor even by African standards with 90 percent of the people living on less than $1 a day. In the UN Development Program’s Human Development Repot for 2010, Sudan scores an abysmal 154 ranking out of 169 countries.
On the eve of the vote, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, “The coming weeks will determine the future of the Sudan for decades to come. The determination of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to sustain peace, stability and coexistence will be the deciding factor in setting that course.”
Keeping the peace and supervising the referendum is up to the 10,000 troops of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Voting over a week will take place at 60,000 polling stations. Costs for holding the referendum are supported by Canada, France, Japan and the USA among others.
As to whether the Northern government will accept the referendum’s results due in February, is another question. Although the Khartoum rulers, including indicted war criminal President Omar Al-Bashir, realize their unpopularity in the largely Christian-South, and knowing a new government in Juba remains inevitable, they may be willing to offer conciliatory political cooperation with the UN in exchange for wider concessions.
Though Al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and the Sudan remains on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, there are strong signals that the Obama Administration may soften its political and moral stance to Sudan’s wider humanitarian transgressions should Al-Bashir not put up serious roadblocks to Southern independence.
Formal independence would come in July after both sides agree to the specifics of the border, and petroleum revenue sharing, and other legalities for full separation. The Abyei oil fields are alongside the proposed demarcation line and are claimed by both sides, thus adding a flashpoint and the potential for renewed conflict.
Secretary General Ban warns of potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences should there be a renewed conflict; “In the unlikely event that the referendum leads to large-scale violence, approximately 2.8 million people could be internally displaced.” The UN has prepared contingency plans for the period up to June, with a possible reinforcement of UNMIS to guarantee security.
The bigger issue remains the limits of separatism, be it along Sudan’s ethnic and religious fault lines, or in so many other cases in Africa. This remains a haunting possibility and some would say probability.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense
issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.