Uncertainty about Sudan referendum is not abating

International actions and the situation on the ground both indicate that people inside and outside Sudan do not yet know what will happen after the Sudan referendum on Jan. 9.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, takes part in the third EU-Africa summit in Tripoli on Nov. 30, 2010. The European Union and African states urged Sudan to accept the results of next year's referendum on whether the south of the country should secede.

In thirty-nine days, Sudan will vote on the question of Southern secession. No one seems certain about what will happen before, during, or after the vote.

Internationally, concern about the potential for violence and instability in Sudan remains high. Yesterday, participants at a joint EU-AU summit in Libya adopted a resolution urging all parties in Sudan to accept the results of the referendum. This statement suggests that Europe and Africa are watching the run-up to the vote with trepidation. The resolution responds indirectly to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP)’s warning that it might not accept the results because of its objections to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)’s actions. The NCP’s rhetoric is making other players nervous too. The Carter Center’s team of monitors says that by trading accusations over the voter registration process and other logistical matters, the NCP and SPLM “are creating a climate of fear and distrust.” From foreign governments to non-profit groups, much of the international community clearly worries that the NCP, or an eruption of tension between the NCP and the SPLM, could derail the chances for a peaceful and successful referendum.

Inside Sudan, logistical preparations for the referendum are encountering repeated setbacks, fueling more uncertainty about how the referendum will go. Responding to problems with voter registration, the referendum commission extended the registration deadline by one week, to Dec. 8. The extension will allow more people to participate, but shortens the time for resolving other issues and making other preparations. Meanwhile, the government is still soliciting bids for printing ballots. The delay in printing ballots could result in flawed ballots, which could in turn give rise to further complaints and arguments over the validity of the referendum outcome.

Politically, different groups of voters in Sudan are reacting to the referendum’s approach in different ways, and some groups feel uneasy about what will happen to them after the vote. In Southern border towns like Renk, some residents fear that their region will become ground zero for a new civil war. Northern residents of such towns debate whether to stay or go if the South secedes. In the North, manyNortherners seem indifferent to the possibility of Southern secession, while Southerners living in cities like Khartoum seem to be taking a “wait-and-see” approach. Relatively few Southerners who live in the North are bothering to register for the referendum. Some Southerners are already leaving for home. Throughout the country, if the journalists’ reports linked here are any indication, Sudanese expect the South to secede – but they do not know whether that will happen peacefully.

The uncertainty will of course continue until the vote happens – no one can predict the future. But watching the mood in the border regions and listening to the NCP’s rhetoric will give observers some sense of how the referendum is shaping up. The progress of logistical preparations (registration, ballots, polling places, etc) will also indicate what we can expect from the referendum itself. For the moment, many observers in and outside of Sudan are pretty nervous, and are likely to remain so until at least Jan. 9.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student of Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahelblog.

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