Southern Sudanese living throughout the country — including 1.5 million southerners living in the northern states and Khartoum, the capital of the North — are participating in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede and become a separate country. A total of 3.9 million southerners have been registered in southern Sudan, northern states, and the diaspora.
The voting on the referendum began January 9, as per the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 by the northern National Congress Party (NCP) and southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) to end Sudan's long-running civil war. The referendum is likely to result in the partition of Sudan, Africa's largest country, after many decades of turmoil and conflict between the Khartoum government and people in the country's south. For the last two weeks, analysts and activists have repeatedly warned that the process could provoke renewed conflict and human rights abuses.
As results are tallied at each polling place, they will be announced there. Count sheets will be sent to Juba, Sudan, the major city in the South, and to the North's capital city Khartoum. If voters choose secession, the transition to independence will take place over six months, culminating on July 9. The vote affects only southern Sudan. The embattled region of Darfur, where government-supported militias have been accused of genocide, would not be separated from the North.
Millions of southerners have already fled to the country's North to escape decades of violence; however, many are now returning in fear of being left on the wrong side of the border if Sudan is split after the referendum's poll.
The New American interviewed Derrick Ajack, one southerner who was in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya, who observed,
I am very happy to see history [being made] in southern Sudan. I am planning to vote to secede and become a separate country because we suffered a lot and enough is enough.
I left southern Sudan in 2002 during the conflict between the northern Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and the Ugandan government which killed thousands of southerners, including my mother.
According to a Human Rights Watch report that was released in 2002,
Conflict between the northern Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and the Ugandan government has significantly escalated, with resulting serious human rights abuses against civilians not only in northern Uganda but also in southern Sudan.
Displaced persons and refugees and the agencies assisting them were not simply caught in the crossfire of this war, but became a primary focus of LRA attacks in both Sudan and Uganda. By September 2002, it was estimated that 552,000 Ugandans were displaced or at risk of having no harvest. At least 24,000 Sudanese refugees in Uganda were forcibly displaced, unknown thousands of southern Sudanese were displaced inside Sudan, and refugee and displaced persons camps and supplies were looted or burned. Tens of thousands of civilians in both northern Uganda and southern Sudan have been killed in this conflict since March 2002.
Human Rights Watch added,
The Sudan government had supported the LRA in retaliation for the Ugandan government's support of the SPLM/A, which has been fighting the Sudanese government since 1983. The presidents of the two countries agreed in 1999 to end support of these two groups and to restore normal diplomatic relations.
The Sudanese government was also motivated after September 11, 2001 to disassociate itself from the LRA, when it was deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. By then, Khartoum had already begun cutting off food, medicine, and other support for the LRA inside Sudan, even though the Ugandan government had not taken any visible steps to cease aiding the SPLM. The LRA had largely retreated into Sudan after an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Gulu, northern Uganda, in late 2000, and northern Uganda became relatively quiet.
But though the Sudanese government's cutback of aid to the LRA weakened the rebel group, it did not lead to its disintegration. Human Rights Watch reported:
To survive, the LRA attacked and looted southern Sudanese villages for food. Wary of the Sudan government's intentions, the LRA began moving from its bases south of Juba to Upper Talanga, a remote area of the Imatong Mountains on the Sudan/Uganda border, sometime in 2001.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement calls for a referendum on southern self-determination on January 9, 2011, and provides for a six-month interim period following the vote. In November the parties agreed in principle to resolve all outstanding issues, including post-referendum arrangements according to a framework proposed by the African Union, but they have yet to formally agree on the details.
An African director at Human Rights Watch, Rona Peligal, commented,
Political parties and governing authorities need to reassure the public that they will not expel anyone and will fulfill their duty to protect all minorities within their jurisdiction during and after the referendum. This acknowledgment will help promote a peaceful, free, and fair voting environment.
Many people displaced from Southern Sudan have lived in northern states for decades and many northerners have lived in the South for just as long, and they need to know they won't be forced out. The referendum may change the existing boundaries of Sudan, but it does not change the human rights standards in force.
Southerners' fears about post-referendum conditions in the North appear to have influenced the decision of many southerners to move south in recent weeks, particularly during the voter registration period.
Also, with the government based in the North, many southerners reported that they were discriminated against. Southerners are also angry at attempts to impose Islamic law on the whole country.
In an interview with The New American, Evelyn Adock, an elderly woman who has lived in North, commented,
Nearly all of those who registered already live in the South — the hundreds of thousands of people who fled to the North during the war, including me, seem to have gone home to register so that they stay away from prejudice.
Most northerners are Arabic-speaking Muslims, while the South is made up of numerous different ethnic groups who are mostly Christian or follow traditional religions."
Nineteen people were killed in clashes between rebel militias and south Sudan's army on the Saturday before the referendum. Southern leaders have regularly accused the North of backing militias to try to disrupt the referendum in a bid to keep control of the region's oil. Northern leaders have dismissed the accusations. In addition, more than 30 people, including 20 police officers, were killed and 33 others wounded in an attack by Arab militia-men in the disputed border region of Abyei on Monday as voting on independence began. Abyei holds a dangerous mix of heavily-armed Arab cattle herders loyal to the northern government of President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, and Dinka Ngok tribesman aligned with the southern leadership.
As millions of southern Sudanese are voting in a self-determination referendum that could split one of Africa's largest but poorest nations into two countries, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has warned that south Sudan will likely face serious problems in the event it gains independence from the North.
Speaking to al-Jazeera TV network, Bashir articulated anxiety about possible instability in the South following the voting, saying that the South may not have the ability to cope with the many problems. He maintained,
The stability of the South is very important to us because any instability in the South will have an impact on the North. If there is a war in your neighbor's house, you will not be at peace. The South suffers from many problems. It's been at war since 1959. The South does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority.Key for above map:
- North Sudan: orange
- Darfur: green
- Eastern Front: purple
- South Sudan: blue
- Abyei: red
- South Kurdufan and Blue Nile: pink
Hussein Moulid is a Kenyan-born Somali freelance journalist, covering stories around East Africa and also the Horn of Africa countries, especially Somalia.