What to watch for as South Sudan turns out for referendum vote

The week-long referendum vote in South Sudan began Sunday. While it appears that relations between the north and south are calm, tensions within the south could prove to be a hurdle.

Jerome Delay/AP
South Sudanese men wait to casts their vote at a polling station in Juba, Southern Sudan on Jan 10. Thousands of people began casting ballots Sunday during a weeklong vote to choose the destiny of this war-ravaged and desperately poor but oil-rich region. The mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa's largest country in two.

Editor's note: This blog post was written on Jan. 8, the day before the referendum vote began.

After decades of war, a five-year transition/peace process that at several points seemed destined for failure, and a year-long push, tomorrow, Southern Sudanese will at long last vote in a referendum on whether to secede from the North. The outcome of the referendum is a foregone conclusion; there's no question that the vast majority of Southern Sudanese will vote to go. The only surprise will be if the option to split garners less than 95 percent of the vote.

While John Prendergast, George Clooney, and other advocates who don't speak a word of Arabic have been raising fears about violence for months (and are now embarking on silly plans to take satellite images of areas in which they believe genocide is likely, despite the fact that you can't actually see that level of detail in satellite imagery), the likelihood that a genocide or war will break out immediately seems to me to be slim to none. As Stephen Chan notes in a discussion hosted by the Royal African Society, there are too many incentives for both sides to behave themselves - the oil needs to keep flowing for both sides to benefit, and the US and China aren't likely to put up with any shenanigans. Also, al-Bashir seems to be willing to let the secession happen, despite pointing out to al-Jazeera that the South is going to be a bit of a mess in its initial independence period.

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As Rob Crilly points out, al-Bashir is right. My real worry for this situation is not that war will break out between north and south – even over Abyei, which I think will eventually be allowed to vote on its own status – but rather than tensions within the South will be played out in the context of an extremely fragile state. Southern Sudan will immediately become one of the world's poorest, weakest states – albeit one with oil – with a plethora of ethnic groups who don't see eye-to-eye on everything. That's rarely a recipe for stability. Add to that the resentment that may build up over the SPLM's domination of politics within the South and there could be real problems.

Then again, the South's many groups have had several years to learn to work together, and everyone has known what was coming for some time.

There are, as you might imagine, lots of resources on what's going on in Southern Sudan this weekend. Here are some of the best I've seen; please add others in the comments:

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs at Texas in Africa.

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