Southern Sudan begins vote on separation

Despite ominous predictions of delays, threats and violence fostered by the mainstream media over the past several months, voters in southern Sudan, over a one-week period beginning this Sunday as scheduled, will be choosing between unity and separation.

If they vote for independence from Sudan, as widely expected, Africa’s largest country will be split, and the new Republic of South Sudan will become the 54th state in the African Union and the 193rd member of the United Nations.

The vote is the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the Southern People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), ending two decades of civil war that claimed about 2 million Sudanese lives.

The CPA created a north-south unity government, allowed semi-autonomy for southern Sudan, mandated the even splitting of oil revenues, and stipulated that a referendum would be held in six years. In order for the results of that referendum to be valid, 60 percent of voters must participate.

The corporate media persistently doubted the poll would proceed, repeating unfounded allegations of stalling and intimidation by the government in Khartoum. But, after the peaceful registration of about 4 million potential voters in Sudan and eight other countries, and subsequent coordination between northern and southern leaders, the referendum now is only days away.

To disprove the naysayers, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Tuesday visited Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, to pledge Khartoum’s help if southerners voted for separation. While he said a split would sadden him, Bashir vowed, “Anything you need in terms of technical, logistical or professional support from Khartoum, you will find us ready to give it. The benefit we get from unity, we can also get from two separate states.”

Many difficult issues will need to be resolved should the south secede from Sudan.  About 80 percent of oil reserves are located in southern Sudan, but all the pipelines pass through the north for export at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The fate of the oil-rich area of Abeyi, where the north and south have violently clashed in the past, is yet to be determined. The 2005 peace agreement called for a special referendum for residents of Abeyi to decide if they wish to remain part of Sudan or join a breakaway South Sudan, but that vote has been postponed while voter eligibility is settled.

The stability and sustainability of an independent, land-locked southern Sudan is in question. Grossly underdeveloped, lacking basic infrastructure, and devoid of industries, a Republic of South Sudan would stay economically dependent on Khartoum. A number of rebels, once allied with the SPLA/M but now opposed to its leadership, operate in parts of the south. Regionally, southern Sudan is surrounded by unstable neighbors, particularly the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a myriad of unpopular and brutal militias, most notoriously the Lord’s Resistance Army formerly based in neighboring Uganda, terrify the countryside.

Yet, northern and southern leaders seem ready to confront these challenges, agreeing to an African Union-mediated framework in November, for instance. The accord establishes a “soft border,” allowing the free movement of trade and nomadic groups, the right of Sudanese to choose their citizenship after a split, and a commitment to demarcate the border if southern Sudan becomes independent. The two sides also pledged to avoid a resumption of war.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and UN diplomats have offered Khartoum various incentives to permit the south to secede, including debt relief and the easing of sanctions. The Obama administration reportedly promised to remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of so-called state sponsors of terrorism, evidence of that list’s deceitful function.

A complication to these negotiations is the fact that Bashir, re-elected last April in a presidential poll boycotted by opposition parties, faces an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide committed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. African leaders largely back Bashir, viewing his indictment as an obstacle to their peacemaking efforts in Sudan.

Like most African countries, Sudan is the creation of European colonists, who mostly delineated borders without local consent. Sudan was administered as two separate provinces by the British until independence was granted in 1956 and power was centralized in Khartoum. While there are some major ethnic and religious differences in Sudan – for example, the north is predominantly Muslim and southerners generally practice African religions (or what the media calls “animism”) and Christianity – Western governments and the corporate media, influenced by right-wing activists and Christian fundamentalists, exaggerate these distinctions. 

The U.S. has been training the southern Sudanese army and providing it with what it terms “nonlethal” supplies. Two years ago, however, Somali pirates detained a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks, rocket launchers and small arms destined for southern Sudan via Kenya. According to secret State Department cables recently released by WikiLeaks, Bush administration officials condoned that shipment as well as previous secret weapons cargoes.

Although Communists as a principle support the right to self-determination, they see the further division of the continent as a setback in the struggle for African unity. Indeed, the Sudan Communist Party, whose leaders and members hail from both the north and south, campaigned against separation. Until the opposition boycott, SCP Secretary General Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud ran in last year’s presidential election on a platform of national unity and development. Interestingly, until the death in 2005 of its famed leader John Garang, the SPLA/M itself did not exclusively advocate independence for southern Sudan, and its leadership historically included many Marxists and northerners committed to a unified and democratic Sudan. 

Nevertheless, according to reports from Juba, a resounding vote for secession seems to be a foregone conclusion. A huge digital clock in the city’s downtown displays in bright red numbers the days, hours and minutes to the referendum. Radio stations feature local hip-hop music encouraging voters to break with Khartoum. And on his visit Tuesday, Bashir was warmly welcomed by spectators waving posters featuring the outline of an open hand, the symbol for separation.

For more background, see my earlier article on Sudan.  

Photo: Justice Chan Reec Madut, center, the chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, discusses the referendum ballot during a press conference in Juba, southern Sudan, on Jan. 3. (AP/Pete Muller)




Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is a Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His publications include Colonial Africa, 1994-1994, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-CWA.