The Rocky Road to Independence for Southern Sudan

A Sudanese voter casts a ballot as others wait in line at a local polling station in the southern capital of Juba on April 11. (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/ AFP-Getty Images)

Starting today, the people of Sudan will go to the polls over three days. This election is Sudan's first multi-party national poll since 1986. However, despite great hopes, both inside and outside the country, the success of these elections hangs delicately in the balance.

Whenever Sudan is mentioned, discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on Darfur. While this is hardly surprising given the extensive casualties and human rights abuses that have resulted since the outbreak of the Darfur Conflict in 2003, it has tended to overshadow important developments elsewhere, particularly in the south. Indeed, it is the future of the south that holds the greatest long-term consequences for Sudan as a whole.

While the media and international political community have generally concentrated on Darfur, the south of Sudan has suffered from a vicious and devastating conflict, which has ravaged the region for over 50 years between 1956 and 2005. During this period, it is estimated that 2 million southern Sudanese were killed and a further 4 million exiled. It was only with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 that the long-sought-after prospect of peace became a reality.

The 2005 CPA granted autonomy to the south of Sudan and allowed for the equal sharing of oil revenues between the Khartoum-based government of Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan. The elections taking place this weekend are a core part of the CPA. Agreement was also reached on the holding of a referendum in January 2011, where the people in Southern Sudan would be able to decide whether they wished to become an independent state or remain part of a united Sudan.

These elections—although wracked by serious accusations of irregularities, with respect to registering voters and corruption—are the first attempt to provide Sudanese with the chance to participate in determining the future destiny of their country. They are also seen as an important stepping-stone to the upcoming referendum on independence for Southern Sudan. 

Moreover, they proceed against a backdrop of violence, which has claimed approximately 2,500 lives in Southern Sudan over the past year, a total far greater than the number of violent deaths in Darfur. In addition, a further 350,000 people were displaced, according to the United Nations. At the same time, the number of people requiring food aid quadrupled from some 1 million in 2009 to 4.3 million in early 2010 as a result of ongoing clashes in the south as well as the current drought.

Since the conclusion of the CPA, the international community has frequently expressed its concern that the 2011 referendum will be conducted in a violence-free atmosphere. Furthermore, should the south vote for its independence, as widely expected, will it be possible for the country to be portioned in a peaceful and consensual manner?

In this respect, the statements of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is subject to an International Criminal Court warrant over alleged war crimes in Darfur, have generally been positive in the run-up to the elections. Although he has indicated that he is against the south's secession, he has generally expressed his (grudging) willingness to accept the result of the referendum. However, Bashir has threatened that, should the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) boycott the elections (as it has been reported that they will), he will act to cancel the 2011 referendum.

In response, the head of the SPLM, Salva Kiir, who in addition to being the vice president of Sudan is also the president of Southern Sudan, has rejected Bashir's threats. Kiir said, "You will find that the referendum is something agreed alone and has to be conducted whether there are elections in Sudan or not."

However, while this might be so, there is no doubt that if Bashir and his administration based in Khartoum wanted to, they could make it virtually impossible to implement such a referendum. Moreover, they could also refuse to accept its results, which could well lead to a resumption of open hostilities.

Although it was hoped that the elections would demonstrate the solidity of the alliance between Bashir's party, the National Congress Party (NCP), and Kiir's SPLM, the opposite appears to be the case. Far from being a solid step on the way to the upcoming 2011 referendum in Southern Sudan, they have led to extensive disagreements between the two parties.

Arguably the first overt sign of the problems simmering below the surface came to light when the SPLM nominated Yasir Arman to challenge Bashir for the north's presidency, despite the NCP's announcement that they would not oppose Kiir's candidacy in the south. Preliminary indications were that Arman would poll well although it was not envisaged that he would be able to defeat Bashir.

It was Arman's decision to withdraw from the presidential race in the north on March 31, alleging fraudulent practices that really set the cat among the pigeons. It has resulted in a number of other political parties declaring that they would boycott the upcoming elections, placing the credibility of their outcome in some doubt.

At the same time, the opposition has shown itself to be disunited and at variance with each other. Whatever happens, though, it is clear that Bashir will be re-elected and that while the NCP may encounter serious opposition in certain areas, it will almost certainly remain the dominant force in Sudan's politics.

Given the economic reality and living conditions of Sudan, control of its major resource, oil, is of primary importance to all parties. Sudan is the largest country in Africa. The south accounts for just over 25 percent of the country's territory. Life expectancy in the north is 57 but drops to 42 in the south.

The decades of conflict have left the south particularly badly impoverished. Maternal mortality is 17 out of 1,000 births. Only 50 percent of children in the south have five years primary education in comparison with 90 percent in the north, and access to clean water is 50 percent in the south against 70 percent in the north.

The importance that has been attached by all parties to the question of control over Sudan's oil resources is hardly surprising. The oil-rich territory that would belong to the south, in the case of its secession, is clearly a cause of significant economic concern for the Bashir-led government.

Indeed, oil played a significant role in the drawing up of the CPA. However, the Agreement will terminate next year and should the January 2011 referendum on self-determination in Southern Sudan be accepted, Northern Sudan risks seeing up to 80 percent of its oil wealth departing with the newly seceded South.

Furthermore, although the CPA distributes the revenues 50/50 between Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan, questions have been raised as to the efficacy of the arrangement. At present, the north is responsible for recording the actual oil production levels of the oil, and concerns have been voiced as to the accuracy of the recorded outputs. According to Rosie Sharpe of Global Witness, their investigations have uncovered inconsistencies in the figures released and believe that this lack of transparency could aggravate the already existing tensions with respect to the 2011 referendum.

While there have been efforts on the part of both Bashir and Kiir to alleviate concerns as to the future of the oil resources and how these might impact the January 2011 referendum, serious doubts remain amongst many people in the south. Many people in Southern Sudan are extremely worried that, should Southern Sudan vote for independence, the Northern government will be pressured into taking action to protect their oil interests.

It was in response to such fears that Kiir, when delivering a speech to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the signing, assured Northern Sudan, "Before appropriate oil infrastructure is developed in Southern Sudan, the oil produced in Southern Sudan will continue to flow from the south to north for processing and export."

However, it remains to be seen if this promise to continue using northern facilities for processing and export in the immediate future will be enough to quiet the concerns of those in the north who want to keep control of these oil resources within a united Sudan.

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