Sudan: Referendum and Implications

WEB EXCLUSIVES | February 1, 2011     

In the days to come, the world will come to learn whether the Republic of SudanAfrica’s and the Arab world’s largest country – will continue as one nation, or be split into two. 

The complex nation that is Sudan has for some time captured the world’s attention, and justifiably so. Soon after gaining independence from the joint Anglo-Egyptian dominion in 1956, constitutional disagreements with South Sudan (North and South Sudan are religiously and ethnically distinct, and largely kept closed off from one another during the colonial era) plunged the country into decades of civil war (1956-72 and 1983-2005), devastating the country and causing mass-scale suffering. It was not until January 2005 that a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) finally ended the civil war between The National Congress Party (NCP), seated in Khartoum, and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Signed by Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, and the late John Garang, the former leader of the southern rebellion, the CPA is an amalgam of six agreements hammered out over the span of two years between the warring factions. The agreement in effect instituted a painstakingly negotiated temporary power- and resource- (oil and non-oil revenue) sharing arrangement between the North and the South. The CPA created an asymmetrical federal system of sorts, and in the process aimed to give a respectable degree of autonomy and self-government to the South. Agreements over security and mechanisms to resolve disputes over the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, as well as the resource- rich Abyei region, also formed key parts of the comprehensive settlement. 

The CPA was temporary in that it provided for an interim regime to be applied until the triggering of an internationally monitored referendum – to be held six years from the time that the agreement was signed in January 2005. The referendum would empower the Southern Sudanese with the option to either continue the negotiated arrangement, as outlined in the CPA, or vote in favour of secession (see the Machakos Protocol, one of the six documents constituting the CPA). 

Peace and hopes that the CPA could seal the peace were, however, dashed rather quickly. While the CPA had the ingredients – at least on paper – to usher in a new chapter for Sudan toward peace and national reconciliation, and conceived of mechanisms through which a more equitable distribution and sharing of resources, development projects, etc., could be implemented, neither party was ultimately able or fully willing, in practice, to honour the long list of obligations imposed by the CPA.  

Khartoum, for its part, showed itself increasingly resistant and hostile to any trend that would result in the de facto saturation of power away from the NCP base. What is more, Khartoum was prepared and quite capable of eliminating any perceived threat to its politics-as-usual. Assisted by arms of the state, including the vector of Sudan’s infamous National Security and Intelligence Service, the NCP in effect ensured its monopoly on power. Not including the casualties generated from the conflict in the West region of Darfur, it is estimated that, since independence, the North-South conflict alone has resulted in the deaths of some two million Southerners, and displaced millions more. 

Faced with the reality that the promises of the CPA will not bear fruit – mainly in respect of power- and resource-sharing and respect for the minority rights of the South Sudanese – the SPLM increasingly looked to the CPA’s six-year interim arrangement as a means to an end. The SPLM and the South Sudanese mindset were shaped by a long history of neglect and social, ethnic and religious discrimination from Khartoum – exacerbated by lingering and never fully reconciled memories of the slave trade, and finally by a peace agreement that failed to deliver. By the expiration of the six-year interim agreement, the choice had become clear for the SPLM and the vast majority of the South Sudanese: it was a referendum vote that would finally give the South the respect and attention that it sorely lacked.

Fast-forward to January 9, 2011: six years have passed since the CPA was signed, and it is referendum ‘day.’ Votes started pouring in just over the New Year, as thousands flocked to the polling stations to vote on whether the South should secede and form Africa’s 54th and newest country. The voting lasted a week until January 15th, and is now complete. A simple majority would suffice to split the country into two. For the vote to be valid, 60 percent of registered voters must cast their votes. Early voting trends had shown overwhelming support for secession. On January 30th, the first complete results of the referendum were made public, showing that some 99 percent of South Sudanese had voted for independence. According to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, the body responsible for organizing the referendum, the final results will be declared on the February 7th or 14th, 2011, depending on whether or not there are any related appeals.

What will a ‘Yes’ vote mean? Many questions remain to be answered. 

Recently, the government in Khartoum has made repeated pledges of support for an independent country in the South. Still, the threat of further violence over a secession vote looms large. While an all-out civil war is unlikely, military skirmishes between the warring factions cannot be ruled out.  Moreover, a yes vote – at least in the short term – is far from being a cure-all to the South’s many troubles. This is not to mention the seismic political tribulations that a ‘yes’ vote could cause in the North, followed potentially by a Sudanese revolt (partly inspired by the recent example of Sudan’s northern neighbour, Egypt) – among them, demands for a new constitution for the North or even calls on the government to step down.

As far as the South is concerned, first, infighting is a cause of much anxiety if the Dinka-dominated SPLM fails to broaden its support party base and excludes rival ethnic groups from the fold of power and decision-making in Juba. The North has traditionally capitalized on existing inter-ethnic rivalries and grievances in the South against the Dinka-dominated SPLM, which itself is accused of undemocratic governance in its control over the South. Moreover, a newly established Sudanese state (exact name to be determined, though The Republic of South Sudan is already being circulated as a possible name), would put to the test the SPLM’s capacity to transition from a resistance movement and quasi-political party into a full-fledged, functioning representative government. Such a newly formed government would have to be capable of, inter alia: providing respectable social services; effectively fighting corruption; building much-needed infrastructure; increasing the very low literacy levels in the South; and managing South Sudan’s complex geopolitics through competent diplomacy and foreign policy. 

Should the South secede – and all indications point to the fact that this is a virtual inevitability – many of the same items detailed in the CPA will have to be revisited and negotiated between Khartoum and a newly created state in South Sudan. These include, but are not limited to: security arrangements; questions dealing with the protection and treatment of minority populations and citizenship issues; boundary demarcation; disarmament needs; and, indeed, the divisive question of resource sharing (in particular, in respect of oil and water resources). 

Any new state that may emerge in the South from a ‘yes’ vote will look to oil revenues as its predominant source of economic potency, and as a lifeline for any major state-building projects –  especially in the country’s formative years. At this stage, apart from an ongoing project to establish a pipeline from the South’s major oil rigs to the Kenyan port of Lamu, all oil refineries and ports for exports are in fact situated not in the South, but in the North. This will necessitate bilateral agreements and the blessing of Khartoum. All of these issues and more will have to be negotiated between the two sides. 

The international dimension of secession also carries with it many unanswered questions about how, for instance, Khartoum and Juba (the would-be capital of a state emerging from South Sudan) will form new alliances, and reject or reinforce old ones. How will other states in Africa, the Middle East or the world at large with similar troubles in their own territories react to a secession vote? Or how will China – today, Sudan’s largest trading partner – react to secession or, more directly, to Western countries looking to establish closer ties with a newly independent, oil-rich South Sudan. This will inevitably threaten China’s previously unchallenged privileged access to Sudanese oil, as a reliable source to fuel its rapidly growing energy needs. 

In the end, a ‘yes’ vote is significant in that it will represent many failures: failure of the CPA and of the international community that helped to broker the agreement to ensure peaceful coexistence between the North and the South in unity; and, to be sure, failure of the central government in Khartoum to adequately meet and honour the legitimate economic, social and political needs of South Sudanese – a historically disfranchised ethnic and religious minority in the country. 

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Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Global Brief.The views expressed in this commentary have been provided in the author’s personal capacity.

The photos of the South Sudan referendum showcased below were taken by Olivier Chassot of the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) in January 2011.

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