Wednesday, January 12, 2011
This week has the potential to be a historic one in the history of Africa's largest nation, Sudan. The people of Southern Sudan are voting in a week long referendum on whether they should separate from the North, forming the continent's 54th sovereign nation, and what would undoubtedly become the UN's latest inductee since Timor-Leste in 2002.
The week of voting began on Sunday, when large numbers of voters were turned away due to enormous crowds at polling stations, particularly in the southern capital of Juba. The poll requires a turn-out of 60% in order to be valid, a figure which authorities expect will easily be reached. The result of the vote will be confirmed by the 15th of February, however preliminary results are expected by Friday. If the Southern Sudanese vote for independence then the process is expected to be completed by July.
The dye was cast for the referendum in the 2005 peace agreement between North and South Sudan ending a decades-old and tragic civil war between the predominantly Arab and Muslim North, and the black Christian and Animist South. The conflict lasted across 4 decades and two separate civil wars stretching from 1963 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005. While the battle for independence may end in July the war may not be so quickly won.
There remains a number of issues to be discussed in secession talks, pending the expected independence vote. Sudan still has a cripplingly high national debt which plays a role in sustaining its poor economic situation. Carving up this debt will be difficult in lieu of its cancellation.
20% of the border between the two nations also remains bitterly contested. Their are considerably economic concerns in its division as the Southern territories contain rich oil reserves and the North is conscious of the implications of relinquishing control of these precious natural resources. A key battle ground in the oil struggle is the disputed territory of Abyei which will vote this year on whether it will join with the South in the possible formation of a new State. However, many in the South are convinced that the election will be used as a tool by the North in order to take some degree of control over the specially demarcated autonomous region.
Indeed there have already been attacks on those registered to vote in the elections in the North by Northern militants. Today 12 people were killed in the violence. It is clear that for the 4 million people (diaspora included) registered to vote in the referendum that independence is a huge step forward but not the end of the conflict desperately hoped for in one of Africa's most troubled nations.