By Paul De Maeyer
ROME, JAN. 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Last Sunday, the “great day” began for Southern Sudan, as voting started on the referendum that could result in Africa’s newest nation.
The vote will decide the future of the region — more or less the size of France and Germany combined. The almost 4 million people who registered to vote must decide if they want independence from Sudan or to continue in unity, selecting on their ballot the symbol of a greeting hand or of two clasped hands.
The referendum is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). To be valid, the popular consultation must reach a majority of 60% of those registered. Although the vote will close Saturday, the final result will only be known in about a month, on Feb. 6 (or Feb. 14 if there are appeals).
Should the secessionists win, the region will become the 54th African state next July 9, exactly six years since the coming into force of the peace agreement that brought to an end a bloody civil war (of at least 2 million victims) between the Muslim North and the Christian and animist South, which broke out in 1959 and lasted — after a long pause from 1972 to 1983 — until 2005. It is not yet known what the new country would be named, but outstanding among the various possibilities are names such as New Sudan, Republic of the Nile and even Kush (or Cush, mentioned in the Bible). Juba would be the capital.
All are in agreement that the real challenge will begin after the probable independence. To the question “is Southern Sudan ready for independence?” the BBC’s Web site responded Jan 4, in Questions and Answers: “To be brutally honest, no.” After decades of war, the South in fact lacks everything.
“Once the euphoria of independence is passed, they will then have to face the harsh reality of the thousands upon thousands of South Sudanese who have returned to the South and have nothing,” the bishop of El Obeid, Macram Max Gassis, told Fides on Saturday. “There are no schools or hospitals, or houses and there is even a lack of drinking water,” continued the prelate, who fears a humanitarian disaster if all the South Sudanese — around 4 million in the Khartoum area alone — decide to return to the southern region.
According to the Sudan Household Health Survey of 2006, in some areas of the southern region, infant mortality in the first year of life surpasses 110 deceased out of every 1,000 born alive. To make a comparison: in Italy in 2006 this rate was 3.4 deaths (Istat data). Another danger that threatens the future of Juba is the specter of new armed conflicts, especially in the oil states.
Oil is in fact the key to understand the referendum. Thanks to Chinese investments — Beijing has not only built streets but also the Great Oil Duct of the Nile, which begins in the southern state Unity (al-Wada in Arabic) — Sudan has become the third producer of oil in Africa (after Nigeria and Angola). Khartoum’s problem is very simple: The main oil fields are concentrated in the South and in case of independence, the North would lose control over the wells and hence over oil production. But the South also has its “oil problem”: It is in need of the North’s infrastructure and the oil duct “made in China” to be able to export the black gold.
Confirming certain fears is the news coming from the contested region of Abyei, spanning the North and South, a region very rich in oil but also in water. As Reuters reported, at least 36 people have died in encounters with Arab nomad farmers, in search of water and pastures, in violence coinciding with the referendum. Meanwhile other attacks were recorded in the oil-state Unity and on the border between the states of South Kurdufan (North) and of the Northern Bahr el-Ghazal (South), according to Reuters.
Abyei is a sort of “microcosm” of conflicts that for decades have broken out in Sudan: an “explosive mix” of ethnic tensions, ambiguous borders, oil and long-standing rivalry. Leaders of the southern Sudanese Dinka Ngok ethnic group openly accuse the Khartoum regime of furnishing arms to militiamen of Misseriya Arab shepherds present in the Abyei region, which enjoys moreover a special status and is governed at present by a mixed administration, made up of officials of the SPLA/M and of the National Congress Party.
Much will depend on President Bashir, who has assured that he will respect the outcome of the referendum, even if he is convinced that Juba “is unable to provide for its citizens or for forming a state or authority” (Al Jazeera, Jan. 8). Bashir has on his head a mandate for arrest issued by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur. His promises regarding the referendum have not convinced observers, who fear recourse to the old tactic of war “by proxy.” In an opinion editorial published Saturday by the New York Times, American President Barack Obama warned, “Under no circumstance should any side use proxy forces in an effort to gain an advantage while we wait for the final results.”
One thing is certain: The referendum does not please Khartoum. For the former Sudanese President Sadiq al-Mahdi — the leader in the 80s of one of the most brutal phases of the civil war — the referendum opens a “Pandora’s box” because it cancels the borders of the colonial period. The New York Times suggested the same. Also international experts, such as Phil Clark of the School of Oriental and African Studies of London, fear the “domino effect.” “Africa does not need a new map,” he said, according to the New York Times.
Nevertheless, For Father Sean O’Leary, director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, headquartered in Pretoria, South Africa, the Sudanese referendum is instead a point of departure for the whole continent. “This vote is an important vote, not only for the people of Southern Sudan, but as a potential starting point for the rewriting of several artificial borders created in Africa during the Berlin conference of 1884-85,” he told Fides on Friday. “We can see the beginning of a new wave of independence. As in South Africa in 1994, what we are witnessing is the birth of a new nation.”