Sudan Referendum: Preparing for Possible Outcomes

By: Fernando Perez

It remains uncertain what the New Year will bring to Africa’s largest country, Sudan, which has witnessed deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in civil wars in the last few decades.

Sudan Referendum: Preparing for Possible Outcomes
 
It remains uncertain what the New Year will bring to Africa’s largest country, Sudan, which has witnessed deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in civil wars in the last few decades. A referendum in southern Sudan to decide whether the people of this largely Christian and black African region want independence from the Arab-dominated, Muslim government of Khartoum is scheduled for January 9. Many questions surround the voting. Will it take place as scheduled? Will it be free and fair? Will Khartoum allow the south to pull out? What will be the fate of southerners living in the north if the south secedes? Or will it all lead to more bloodshed?
 
The January 9 referendum is part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended decades-long civil war – over ethnicity, oil, religion and resources – between the government of Khartoum and rebels from the south leading to the death of an estimated 2.5 million people, mainly due to hunger and starvation.
 
In a simultaneous referendum, the oil-rich Abyei region – between northern and southern Sudan – will vote on whether or not to become part of southern Sudan. But the referendum leaves out South Kordofan and Blue Nile, two of the 26 wilayats or states of Sudan, where “Popular Consultations” (an ill-defined process to democratically and popularly assess the 2005 CPA and find out whether it satisfactorily reflects the people’s aspirations) are being held – which seems little more than tokenism. Many people from these two states have fought alongside the southerners with the government of Khartoum, and if given a chance, are likely to vote for being part of southern Sudan.
 
The referendum also excludes the Darfur region in western Sudan, which has been in a gory civil war since February 2003 and has seen the killing of over 400,000 people, as estimated by rights groups.
 
The turnout of the January 9 referendum will have to be at least 60 percent for it to be valid, and then a simple majority vote in favour of independence will result in secession of south Sudan. If the turnout is insufficient, a second voting will be held within 60 days. But given the tense atmosphere on the ground, the continuation of peace for 60 days may be a lot to expect.
 
Although the south has been seeking independence since at least a year before the independence of the region from the British in 1956, civil wars became fierce in the early 1990s. For, in 1989, Omar Hassan al-Bashir – then a colonel and now the President – ousted the then coalition government in a bloodless military coup and became the President of Sudan in 1993. The al-Bashir-led military government introduced an Islamic legal code in the country, and began taking control of the predominantly Christian south. Bashir, known to be hot-tempered and almost paranoid about his pride and prestige, also eliminated the upper ranks of the army and banned associations, political parties and the media. But by the time he took control of the whole of the south in the 1990s, a guerrilla force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLM), became powerful and fought with government troops.
 
The government of Khartoum is also accused of carrying out proxy attacks on guerrillas and civilians in insurgency affected regions through the Janjaweed, a militia comprising Arabised black Africans allegedly armed by the government. It is believed that the government finances the militia and supplies arms.
 
President al-Bashir won the allegedly rigged, delayed election in April 2010 – also part of the CPA – but is not popular in most parts of Sudan. The 2005 Agreement, which led to the implementation of an interim constitution which recognised the cultural and religious diversity of Sudan, was aimed at unifying the country but with the promise of a referendum to allow the people on the south to decide if they wanted to remain with Sudan or secede in 2011. The southerners, however, have not seen a change in the attitude of the government of Khartoum and are likely to vote for independence if the referendum goes off peacefully.
 
While the referendum may be held in south Sudan as scheduled, it is doubtful if the Abyei region will be given a chance to decide if its people want to be part of south Sudan, as preparations have not been made by the government adequately, perhaps on purpose.
 
The official website of the SPLM, based in southern capital of Juba, says all states in the south are ready for the referendum. “Over 3.4 million people have registered to vote in the January 2011 referendum on independence. According to independent opinion polls, an overwhelming majority will vote for secession,” it adds.
 
President al-Bashir has also told the media that he is willing to let the south part ways if its people so wish through the referendum. Bashir has seemingly changed his mind in recent days finding consolation in the fact that if the south secedes, he will have more time in office as that will soften the international community, including the United States, towards his regime. He has no other known threat, as his National Congress Party is deeply divided and therefore there is no challenge from within.
 
While the people of the south may be able to vote freely – given that the voting will be monitored internationally – it is feared that al-Bashir’s government may refuse to recognise the results on some technical grounds, especially using the minimum turnout of 60 percent required for the voting’s validity. In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the results were declared in favour of the unity of north and south Sudan, especially if there is large-scale violence during the voting – in which case international monitoring will become extremely difficult.
 
Even the possibility of a last-minute deferment of the scheduled voting cannot be ruled out. For troops from both north and south have heavily been deployed along the border and they are in close proximity to each other. So, even a minor provocation by either side can result in a full-blown war between them. It is, however, hoped that such a situation would not arise as that will benefit neither of the two parties. For the people of the south want to have a peaceful referendum. And even president al-Bashir cannot afford to test the patience of the international community by having another armed conflict. But the international community still needs to urgently deploy a neutral force as a buffer between the two armies.
 
Even if the south secedes in a fairly peaceful manner, one wonders what will be the fate of the over 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) from the south living in the north. Neither the government of Khartoum and nor the leaders of the south have apparently made any preparations. The safety of the IDPs is feared mainly because President al-Bashir recently said he would change the constitution and make the Sharia law stricter if the south separates. Some apprehend that the southerners in the north will have no rights at all. And if the IDPs are able to cross over to the south, the government there does not seem to have resources to look after them. Besides, there are churches and other Christians in the north. What will happen to them if north Sudan becomes an Islamic state?
 
Moreover, some key issues that will come up after the referendum – if the south secedes – such as the demarcation of the border, ownership and management of oil and other resources, citizenship, minority rights and so on, are yet to be resolved. One of the most crucial issues is concerning oil, which is mainly in the south and currently constitutes 95 percent of export revenues and 60 percent of government revenues in Sudan. Perhaps, willingness on part of southern leaders to share resources, or revenues from them, will increase prospects of peace in the region.
 
In a nutshell, the possibilities are: (1) an armed conflict between northern and southern forces leading to a last-minute deferment of the referendum and possibly a renewed civil war; (2) violence and rigging during the voting and the results go against secession; (3) the referendum goes peacefully as per the schedule but is disqualified by the government of Khartoum; (4) continuation of the north-south conflict owing to issues arising out of post-referendum arrangements; and (5) the referendum leads to secession of south Sudan but a humanitarian crisis erupts among the IDPs in the north.
 
Regrettably, none of the possibilities in sight is ideal. And perhaps it’s too late to discuss flaws in diplomacy by the United States and other nations and blocks. Though the time is short, all efforts must be made by international organisations, concerned blocs, rights groups, relief agencies and concerned individuals to prepare for the possible outcomes of the voting as per their respective strengths and capacities. The others should pray, for peace in south as well as north Sudan.