On 9 January 2011, the digital clock that stands at a roundabout in Juba, the South Sudan capital, and that reads “Countdown to Southern Sudan Referendum,” will stop ticking. As the people of South Sudanhead to the polls for a historic vote on secession some questions come to mind: Would the transition be managed peacefully? What is the fate of the people of the disputed area of Abyei? Would the leaders of an independent South Sudan be up to the challenge and deliver on the fundamentals needed to transform the war-torn region into a peaceful, stable and economically viable state? How would the northern Sudanese react to the south seceding? Would the National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar Al-Bashir remain in power in the north while the southern territory slips away?
For the time being, the majority of southern Sudanese are not concerned with finding answers to these complex questions. For decades they have been longing for the day they will become “independent and free from northern hegemony”. By 8 December, when voter registration ended, more than 3.2 million out of the 5.4 million southern Sudanese eligible to cast their vote had registered for the landmark poll in a region where more than half the population is illiterate and live in rural areas, proving that “enough is enough”. Observers also expect the turnout to be record breaking as south Sudanese are well aware that under the referendum law a 60 per cent turnout of registered voters is be needed for the plebiscite to be valid.
After more than two million people were killed and four million others left homeless, the ideal of building a New Sudan, uniting north and south and building a country whereby power and natural resources are shared between lighter-skinned Arabs and darker-skinned Africans, as dreamt of by the late John Garang, has long died and there is little doubt today what way the balance will tilt at the end of the five-day long voting process. The 9 January referendum —a key condition of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in Naivasha, Kenya, between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the government of Sudan —holds great promises but it carries also great uncertainties and mammoth challenges.
When signing the CPA, both parties agreed to end the Second Sudanese Civil War, develop democratic governance countrywide and share oil revenues. The CPA process incorporates among other articles, three very important protocols: the wealth sharing protocol; the protocol on the resolution of the conflict in Abyei area; and the protocol on the resolution of the conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
To make the transition peaceful, the north and south have still to agree on post-referendum issues such as citizenship, oil, water, debt, currency and national assets. Up to now neither an agreement was reached on the question of boundary demarcations, which includes the status of the contested oil-rich area of Abyei, nor a deal made on the tough question of oil sharing. The decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague regarding the boundary problem was earlier rejected by Khartoum and the issue still hangs unresolved; both parties have promised recently that these issues will be dealt with before July 2011, when the south would become a nation as stipulated in the CPA.
The border demarcation between north and south is a prerequisite not only to wealth sharing but also to citizenship and identity. The Abyei referendum that will take place simultaneously would allow the residents of the area to decide whether they want to be part of north or south Sudan and will dictate whether oil in the Abyei area goes to the north or the south if southerners vote to secede. But if the situation in Abyei gets out of control it will affect the stability of the country as a whole, with drastic repercussions throughout the region.
Together with the issue of boundaries, oil revenues have become the apple of discord between north and south. Yet there is a way to avoid future conflicts: to have in place a transparent and verifiable new oil deal. The country’s oil reserves are located mostly in the south but currently remain under the control of the north, and it will be difficult for the Khartoum government to give up its lion share. Furthermore, as the political and economic implications of the inter-connected oil/boundary issues are crucial to both north and south, the stakes are also high for China, the country’s biggest investor and a key player in Sudan’s oil industry.
Speaking last Tuesday in Juba, President Al-Bashir vowed to respect the results of the referendum. But if —as foreseen by many —the 3.2 million southern Sudanese choose independence the new state would take with it about 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil output. So how would the government of President Al-Bashir react to such a costly outcome? Would Khartoum genuinely and honestly agree to let go the oil-rich territories or would it relent on promises and not honour the CPA —a too oft repeated scenario as past agreements between the north and south have all collapsed.
The possibility of renewed war is out of the question. Neither the southern leadership nor Sudan’s ruling NCP is ready for it. With tribalism and nepotism dominating the political arena, internal fighting is looming on the horizon for both north and south. For investors as well as donors to pour in the needed cash flow, the transition has to run smoothly, as renewed instability would frighten them off.
President Al-Bashir is under great pressure. Apart from the unresolved disastrous Darfur crisis, he faces a disgruntled army that could well blame him for the loss of the south. He also wants the north to have a new Islamic constitution whereby Sharia law will be reinforced once the south secedes. But this announcement did not go over well with northern opposition parties and many northerners believe that the NCP’s almost two decades of intransigence on imposing Islamic law may well have been the cause for the secession of the south. Al-Bashir also faces popular protests against a deteriorating economy and the high cost of living, two factors that would be felt even more with a reduction in oil revenues.
As for the south, even if the oil revenues are shared equally and fairly between north and south, South Sudan will be one of the poorest countries in the world. Nine out of 10 people in the region live on less than $1 a day, the region has only 30 miles of paved roads and almost 80 per cent of services such as health, education, safe drinking water and sanitation are provided by non-governmental organisations.But more than anything else, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), almost half the population —or 4.3 million people —are in need of food assistance.
Even before the second civil war erupted in the south in 1983 the region was undeveloped. It was neglected by successive governments and left to its own devices for decades. In addition, from 1983 to 2005, the people of South Sudan have been either fighting a war or fleeing from it. Living as refugees in foreign lands, only but a few lucky ones managed to get educated or learn a trade, so the large majority of South Sudanese lack the most essential skills to build and develop their new country.
Whether to stay in or separate from the rest of Sudan is raising hopes of a new era for southern Sudanese, but the stakes are very high for all concerned. The hard-earned independence of southern Sudanese requires political maturity and vision that no one has proved, up to now, to have the capacity to harness.
The writer is an expert in Sudanese affairs.