Referendum: Sudan at crossroads

Referendum: Sudan at crossroads

On Sunday last, voters in Sudan’s ten southernmost provinces began casting ballots in a week-long referendum to decide whether or not the country will be divided between the Arab Muslim north and the African animist and Christian south.

Almost four million, half the south’s population, have registered to vote. Some 60,000 are registered in the diaspora but only 1,20,000 in the north where southerners fear intimidation. For the vote to be valid, more than 60 per cent of voters must cast their ballots.

In the un-delineated border district of Abyei, voting has been delayed due to disputes over who is eligible to vote. The oil-rich district is torn between African Dinka farmers who want to go with the south and Arab Misseriya pastoral tribesmen who seek to stay with the north.

The referendum is the central feature in the 2005 US-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to 22 years of war between north and south that left two million dead and four million homeless. In a New Year’s day address marking the 56th anniversary of the independence of Sudan from Britain and Egypt, President Omar al-Bashir made a final appeal for unity but reluctantly pledged to accept the results of the referendum. Division is predicted.


Bashir has only himself to blame. During his 21 year rule, the military has dominated the south and run roughshod over the population. He imposed Islamic religious law on the whole of the country, alienating non-Muslims, who account for 25 per cent.

Although three-quarters of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south, he appropriated most of the revenues from oil exports, which fund 60 per cent of the national budget. The south remains poor, its infrastructure undeveloped, its people hovering on the brink of disaster due to starvation and disease.

The vote is to be closely monitored. Among foreign observers are former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,  and former Tanzanian Prime Minister Joseph Warioba. The Arab League, Japan and China have also sent teams of monitors.

Last week US actor and activist George Clooney announced the launch of a satellite to survey events in Sudan during the referendum with the aim of preventing violence.

The consequences of a vote for division are unpredictable. Once the results of the referendum are certified, negotiators are expected to undertake the difficult and potentially explosive tasks of demarcating the border between north and south and allocating oil, water, mineral, and grazing rights. The status of 1.5 million southerners living in the north and 8,00,000 northerners dwelling in the south must be settled.

Arrangements must be made for paying the country’s $35 billion national debt. These issues are supposed to be resolved by July when implementation of separation should begin.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who does not want to face a Rwanda-style genocide on her watch, warned that the situation “a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence”. Sudan is not one but two time bombs. Both north and south suffer from centripetal forces that can blow them apart at any time and under any pretext.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, head of the autonomous southern region and military commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), is set to become first president of the independent south, an area where rival linguistic and ethnic groups compete for advantage  in the swamps, grasslands and jungles and where tribal lords deeply distrust Kirr and the SPLM.

Last week in the north, as the military waited to see if Bashir fails to contain the fall-out from separation, opposition parties called for his replacement through peaceful means. Darfur could try to break with the north or could descend into civil strife at any time and the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has devastated Uganda and other African countries, threatens south Sudan. Collapse could, ultimately, destabilise its neighbours, creating chaos and anarchy in the whole of East Africa.

Sudan’s dismemberment will be the fruit of the policy of divide-and-rule Britain devised with the objective of holding onto its colonies, a policy that ultimately punished colonies who broke away from the empire and sought independence. India-Pakistan, Ireland, Palestine and Cyprus suffered war and division because of this destructive policy.

In 1899, Britain unified and imposed its rule on Sudan but by the 1920s the British were playing off northerners against southerners. The British game in Sudan was aided and abetted by western missionaries who sought to convert animists to Christianity.

In recent decades foreign oil companies have also promoted division with the aim of extracting concessions for oil exploration and development. Large countries, like India, with restive minorities will be keeping a wary eye on developments in Sudan.

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