With independence vote, South Sudan finally sees end to decades of struggle

A vote for secession is all but certain in the independence referendum that begins Sunday. South Sudan is anticipating independence and a chance to build its own country.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A southern Sudanese woman waves a south Sudan flag during a rally in Juba, Sudan, on Jan. 7. The majority of southerners are convinced that life in their new state – a vote for secession in the independence referendum that begins Sunday is the more likely outcome – will be far better than it is under Sudan’s current construction.

Two days remain until South Sudanese vote in an unprecedented referendum to decide whether or not to split Sudan, Africa's largest country, into two independent states.

Sudan’s wars have been almost constant since independence from Britain 55 years ago, culminating in a brutal two-decade civil war between the Arab and Muslim north and non-Arab, Christian, and animist south.

The majority of southerners are convinced that life in their new state – a vote for secession is the more likely outcome – will be far better than it is under Sudan’s current construction, if only because they will be free from the oppressive yoke of unity by force, imposed by successive governments in Khartoum.

In 2005, Sudan’s warring parties in the north and south signed a peace deal that gave the south substantial autonomy, but required the two sides to commit to attempting to “make unity attractive” over the six years before southerners would have the chance to vote in an independence referendum.

In recent months, southern officials have repeated the refrain that “unity has not been made attractive,” and it is clear that the issues that divided the north and south for decades – religion, race, and resources, among others – have not been resolved since the peace was signed.

“The south has been derailed out of history from the first time they got into contact with other people, with forces from outside the Sudan and also forces inside Sudan,” said Pagan Amum, who heads the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. “It is only now, lately, that the people of Southern Sudan are going to determine their future, as free people.”

South Sudan's long struggle

The struggle waged by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the southern rebel movement whose motto is “victory is certain,” was costly.

“Many many heroes, we lost our loved ones for freedom,” goes a catchy tune by Emmanuel Kembe, a young South Sudanese musician who has been touring this oil-rich yet under-developed region getting out the secession message.

This campaign is hardly necessary in a place that is buzzing with excitement for Sunday’s vote, when the vast majority of southerners are expected to tick the box next to a single raised palm, which represents “secession” on the ballot for those who are not literate.

What will happen this Sunday now appears to be a foregone conclusion: tens of thousands of registered South Sudanese will line up at polling stations to cast their votes, while domestic and international observers look on and hoards of journalists document the historic moment.

“Everything appears to be on track,” said David Gressly, who heads the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the south. “The many skeptics who never thought Southern Sudan would be ready to hold its referendum by next Sunday were proven wrong.”

Gressly told reporters in the South Sudanese capital of Juba on Jan. 6 that the UN expected the vote to start on time on Jan. 9, and that the those involved in carrying out the referendum have succeeded in their work despite “an extremely tight timetable in a political sensitive environment.”

Despite rushed preparations for the three weeks of voter registration in November and December, observers like the Carter Center said that process was credible and boded well for the success of the vote itself.

Optimism on eve of vote

On the eve of the referendum, the mood is optimistic in many camps, including the Obama administration and the UN, and even Sudan President Omar al-Bashir seems willing to accept southern independence. The Sudanese president, wanted for war crimes related to the Darfur conflict, told southern leaders during his visit earlier this week to Juba that he knew southerners were likely to choose secession and that if the referendum passes, he would lend support to the south as they built their own state.

Referendum polling lasts until Jan. 15. If the international community appears to be fairly united on one foreign policy issue at this moment, it may well be the importance of recognizing the results of the referendum. When President Obama led a high-level meeting on Sudan in September, key players in the international community were unified in their message of support to Sudan’s leaders in the north and south for creating conditions for a peaceful and credible vote – and consequences if any party attempted to stymie it.

Uncertainty remains

While it is possible to foresee how the vote will play out and predict its immediate aftermath, the months to come in Sudan are much more uncertain.

If the south does break away following the referendum, the new nation will declare independence on July 9. Before then, a host of agreements must be reached between Khartoum and Juba, none of them straightforward.

How to divide Sudan’s $40 billion debt, much of it accrued while Khartoum was waging war and purchasing military aircraft to launch air strikes on the south? Where exactly does the 1,300-mile border between north and south lie? How will they share oil revenues after independence? That could be especially difficult, since the resource watchdog group Global Witness maintains that it is impossible to know the exact amount of oil Sudan currently produces, given the lack of transparency in Sudan’s oil sector and the mistrust between both sides.

While elation and joy are likely to mark the coming days in South Sudan while its people participate in their long-awaited and hard-won vote, the following months will require Sudan’s leaders in north and south to stay at the negotiating table until agreements are brokered.

Edmund Yakani, head of the largest domestic referendum-monitoring group in South Sudan, says he’s looking forward to the day when his people will be free, but he knows the road will not be entirely smooth.

“It’s not a soft independence,” says Mr. Yakani. “It’s an independence associated with political and military struggle.”

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