SUDAN: Referendum might mark birth of a new nation, though fear of violence looms

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Southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote for independence — splitting the largest country in Africa and the Arab world in two — in a referendum on Sunday. Secession would mark the beginning of a complicated process of creating a new African state.

The referendum was designed to be the culmination of a peace process ending decades of conflict between the north and the south in Sudan, but there are lingering fears that tensions could erupt into violence.

Tensions between the north and south have a long history, going back to pre-colonial days. The two areas have significantly different cultural, ethnic and religious makeups — the north is mainly Arab and Muslim while the south is mainly African and Christian or animist — which have complicated relations for many years.

After the civil war broke out, the first attempt to stop the fighting and negotiate a solution was the Addis Ababa peace agreement signed in 1972. This ended the war for 10 years, but two factors led to the resumption of civil war: the growing Islamization of the north and changes to clauses in the peace accord that cost the south some of its representation in government.


This conflict — which killed an estimated 2 million people — continued until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005. The CPA — which included a cease-fire deal and a system of power and revenue-sharing between the north and south — contained extensive provisions on self-government in the south, representation of the south in the national unity government and an elaborate process of creating democratic institutions.

These democratic provisions, however, never operated as originally designed, and the hope that this system would entice the south to remain a part of Sudan was dashed.

Now that the six years scheduled in the CPA between the agreement and the referendum have passed, southern Sudanese — whether living in the south, north or in sufficient numbers abroad — must decide between unity and secession. (Northern Sudanese do not vote.) There is an overwhelming consensus that the south will vote for independence. Voters have been registered and there is a strong international presence on the ground, so the referendum is expected to proceed relatively smoothly.

The question is what happens the day after the vote. It is important to remember that if the south secedes, there will be not one but two new countries after the referendum — the north will be a different country and is likely to immediately implement Sharia law and assert its Islamic identity with renewed vigor. The potential complications between the two countries are endless, as they will need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, water, official borders, citizenship, disarmament and other security issues.

The referendum also marks a recognition by the international community — historically adverse to dividing countries — that no other solution but separation exists. As a result, it sets a precedent and may have implications for other divided African counties, including Nigeria and Congo (not to mention Darfur). While Eritrea has been the only country to secede in Africa since the end of colonialism, this took place as a result of war.

Southern Sudan’s vote for independence will be Africa’s first secession through referendum and hopefully through peaceful means. The threat of violence, however, looms large with immediate concern over the sharing of oil revenues, the yet-to-be-demarcated border and southerners currently living in the north. It will be important to keep watching after the results become clear.

-- Marina Ottaway in Washington

Editor’s note: The post is from an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of the analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the political positions of The Times or its blog.