The people of Sudan are celebrating the results of a recent referendum on independence in South Sudan. The results were no surprise — everyone expected a convincing victory for independence, and the 98.8 per cent majority who voted in favour of independence provided that. Now that the election is completed, however, the difficult work of dividing a country — a country just emerging from decades of civil war — begins.
The referendum on independence was a condition of a 2005 peace agreement that ended nearly two decades of civil war in Sudan between the primarily Arab and Muslim north and the primarily African and Christian-animist south. The south is also significantly poorer than the north, despite being home to much of Sudan’s oil reserves. Tensions remain high, and many fear that the referendum will be a catalyst for further tension and violence, possibly even a return to civil war.
Fortunately, initial signs appear positive. In a trip to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, before the referendum, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan set a surprisingly conciliatory tone, emphasizing that Sudan was prepared for an amicable divorce and promising to support the south even if it chose secession. Al-Bashir has been praised for his tone, and the United States has talked about removing Sudan from its list of states that support terrorism if it acknowledges the referendum results. Since the referendum, it appears that Sudan will do just that, as President Bashir has indicated that “we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people.”
Nevertheless, dividing a country is never an easy process. This is particularly the case as South Sudan is home to much of Sudan’s extensive oil reserves. The north, however, contains all the infrastructure to transport the oil. Additionally, given the distrust borne out of two decades of conflict and local inter-tribal rivalries, there may be conflict to come in the region.
Indeed, prior to the referendum, Al Jazeera reported that the north appeared to be re-arming the border regions with the south, a charge that the north strongly denied. While the referendum process was relatively peaceful, there have been local killings and ambushes, as well as skirmishes in the province of Abyei, a region that will have its own vote on whether to join the north or the south.
If the South Sudanese vote for independence is ratified officially, negotiators will have until this summer to wade through a variety of contentious issues — oil revenues, dividing the national debt, establishing a border, to name a few. By July, however, South Sudan will likely be independent. The south says that it will declare independence on July 9, and countries such as the United States have already stated that they will recognize the new nation on that date.
Despite the current euphoria, the road ahead is a difficult one. South Sudan will become one of the world’s poorest countries — income, healthcare, education and food security are all far worse in the south than the north. In addition to the petty challenges of picking an anthem and a new name, the South Sudanese also have to develop infrastructure, address dire poverty and continue to deal with the trauma caused by two decades of civil war.
Nevertheless, this is also a moment for hope. For the first time in decades, there appears to be an opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the violence that has plagued the region. It will bring an end to a bizarre legacy of British colonial rule that brought together several ethnic groups and favoured some over others. And it will hopefully enable the south to more fully experience the benefits of its oil revenues to the benefit of its own people.
Over the coming weeks and months there will likely be many tense moments in Sudan. There are still many details to be worked out between now and July. But very likely this will be the culmination of decades of struggle and hardship for the South Sudanese, an opportunity to celebrate the creation of the world’s 193rd country and a non-violent end to one of the deadliest wars in African history. This is truly a moment to celebrate.
Stefan Epp looks forward to the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan.