The time for decision is fast approaching for the people of southern Sudan, who are going to the polls to decide if the largest country in Africa will be split into two.
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Voter registration has begun for the long-awaited referendum that aims to end one of Africa’s worst civil wars and could lead to the creation of the newest African state.
“Our assessment is that the majority of the people in south Sudan are for secession,” said EJ Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group.
“We expect the vote to be for independence and that will eventually lead to the creation of an independent state in south Sudan,” Hogendoorn told The Media Line. “If that exercise doesn’t go smoothly then the possibility of a conflict increases.”
Under the guidance of the United Nations, voter registration has begun that will put the fate of south Sudan into the hands of not only those living there but also those who fled northward and to other countries to flee the fighting. The US has made clear it views the vote as so critical that it has offered to remove Khartoum from a list of terrorist-sponsor states if the poll goes ahead as scheduled.
A UN referendum commission has set up about 2,800 registration centers, with all but 165 located in the south. Southerners living in the north, estimated to number about 1.5 million, are entitled to vote. The UN has provided logistical support by transporting registration forms across both countries, especially to remote areas.
“We have been highly impressed by the large turnout that we have witnessed for ourselves, for the registration process especially here in Juba and the people are obviously very enthusiastic, they are very patient, there have been long queues. The process of registration is proceeding well,” said Benjamin Mkapa, chairman of the UN Referendum Panel.
The referendum, set for January 9th, was first called upon in 2005 as part of an agreement to end decades of civil war between the largely Muslim north and Christian and animist south. Nearly two million people have died in this conflict, which has also displaced another 4 million people.
With most of Sudan’s oil reserves in the south, the question is whether the government in Khartoum will let it go without a fight. In addition to offering to drop if from the list of terror sponsors, America has dangled carrots of relief, aid and debt reduction if the referendum is trouble free to Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bahir.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) also calls for a simultaneous referendum in the oil-rich province of Abyei to decide whether to remain part of north Sudan and join the south.
“If the Government of Sudan fulfills the CPA, if it resolves the future of Abyei, if it holds Southern Sudan’s referendum on January 9th and then recognizes the will of the Sudanese people in the south, then the United States is prepared to begin the process of withdrawing Sudan from our list of state sponsors of terrorism,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the UN Security Council last week.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of former south Sudanese who fled the war have been flowing back to the south so they can vote there under the campaign “Come Home to Choose.”
“We left because of the war. Let us go back and live in peace in our land and re-establish our lives just like we did in the north,” said Elisa Chek Luke Majak, southern Sudanese returnee.
But getting across the one-million-square mile nation isn’t easy. Some have been left stranded at bus stands and once they arrive, they have been put up in public areas and are in need of basic care and humanitarian assistance. Growing insecurity has put UN relief in question.
“Humanitarian agencies have reported a worrying deterioration in the operating environment in recent months in the South, in Abyei and in Darfur. Growing insecurity is a major concern and is limiting the freedom of movement of humanitarian workers and their ability to offer assistance to people in need,” Valerie Amos, under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told reporters at the UN last week.
With voter registration expected to take place until December 1st, donor nations have provided vehicles and aircraft to help.
Hogendoorn said the neighboring states around southern Sudan believed they would benefit from the economic stability of the region after independence.
“The reality is that a number of states that surround southern Sudan are relatively positive about their independence in part because if there is a stable south Sudan there it presents a huge economic opportunity for them,” he said.
However, Hogendoorn said there was some concern among African Union
members that the south Sudanese example could set a precedent for other
“And they are nervous about that,” he said. “If you talk about some of
the North African countries they are quiet concerned about the split of
Sudan, but our assessment is that many of them now are quietly resigned
to that eventuality.”
With both the south and the north accusing each other of a military
build-up on the shared frontier, the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan
has already stepped up monitoring along the border and reinforcing
“If this process is not handled well it could spark conflict and could
escalate. No one in the north or south wants to see a return to
conflict, but it could trigger to localized violence and that has the
potential of spiraling out of control,” Hogendoorn.