Historic vote draws near in Sudan

December 9th, 2010

Southern Sudanese sit in a registration center in the capital city of Khartoum in Sudan on Nov. 25. (AP)

A month from today, on Jan. 9, the world may witness either the birth of a new nation or the beginning of a bloody genocide in southern Sudan.

On that day, the south is scheduled to go to the polls to decide whether or not to secede from the rest of the country. The vote is supposed to bring a peaceful end to decades of conflict that have resulted in the deaths of millions of Sudanese. But with so much at stake, it could just as easily mark the beginning of the latest chapter of bloodshed.

The country first plunged into civil war between the north and south after gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1956. The fighting lasted until 1972, but broke out again with renewed ferocity in 1983. Since then, some four million Sudanese have died as a result of fighting and famine-related effects.

Fighting persisted full-force until the early years of this decade, when peace talks finally began to gain momentum. On Jan. 9, 2005, leaders of both President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the military wing of the main rebel group in the south, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA, which represented the culmination of a series of American-brokered agreements between the predominately Arab Muslim north and the largely African Christian or animist south, brought an official end to the civil war – although it has not brought a complete end to the violence.

Most importantly, the CPA created a temporary federal unity government and granted the south partial autonomy for six years, after which it would vote on whether to secede from Sudan.

While it is widely expected that the south will choose to secede, with only a month left until the vote, many major issues that were supposed to be settled long ago remain unresolved. Voter registration is behind schedule. The border between the north and south still has not been drawn. And, perhaps most importantly, there is still no agreement on how Sudan’s oil revenue will be shared.

Oil profits account for almost all of the Sudanese government’s revenue, and are the main reason that Sudan’s economy has tripled in size in just 20 years. President Bashir has virtually staked his legitimacy to oil profits, using them to build roads, schools and hospitals, as well as to arm his military.

However, Bashir has likely lost sleep over the fact that almost all of Sudan’s oil wells are located in the south. If and when the south secedes, the government in Khartoum surely fears it will take the oil wells with it. And in the absence of an oil sharing agreement, Bashir won’t let that happen without a fight.

But the Sudanese government has neglected the south both economically and politically for far too long. Not only has this neglect driven the decades-long conflict, but it has also left the south impoverished and undeveloped. An independent south, therefore, would need at least a substantial share of the oil profits if it is to have any chance at survival.

As the election has drawn near, accusations that the north will try to delay the referendum have increased. Some predict that if the referendum collapses, the south will unilaterally declare its independence, plunging the country into a more ferocious state of war than ever seen.

After all, the five years since the CPA was signed has allowed the Sudanese Armed Forces and the SPLA to rearm and reposition along the border. And Bashir, who is already wanted for his role in the genocide in Darfur that killed some 300,000 Sudanese, has proven that he is willing to cross the line.