Last Tuesday, the UN Security Council expressed concerns over delays in the preparation for South Sudan’s self-determination referendum. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, told the meeting he feared a “wider conflict” between the North and South. The Security Council in a statement said it was “concerned” over delays by the government in Khartoum, releasing funding for the January 9 referendum as well as that in the disputed, oil-rich region of Abyei. Ban Ki-Moon added that “this is a critical piece of a 2005 peace agreement. This is the culmination of it. It is very important and that has been stated by all the speakers so far at this meeting today. Underlined too is pressure to make certain that it happens on time. There are concerns over whether the vote will go on January 9 as scheduled”, Aljazeera reported on Tuesday.
Just as the UN was expressing its concerns about the delay in the general build up to the January 9 self-determination referendum, voter registration got under way, as scheduled last week Monday in South Sudan. The referendum is the final phase of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the two decades of war between the North and South of Sudan. If voters back the secession option in the referendum, then Africa’s largest nation will be split into two. One of the main worries in the wake of the referendum is that any problems arising with the vote could trigger violence or even worse, a renewed war between the two sides. Aljazeera quoted Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, as saying that relief agencies are stockpiling supplies in areas of South Sudan before the vote. “Work is already going on in Sudan to preposition humanitarian assistance near potential hot spots in southern Sudan and in border areas”, Amos was quoted as saying. Furthermore, there is concern that the vote could trigger a massive return of thousands of Southerners who live in the North.
The main flash point that most people worry about is the disputed region of Abyei. The Sudanese Ambassador to the UN, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, told the UN Security Council that any effort to conduct a referendum in Abyei, without settling voting rights for competing tribes, as well as the border, will lead to war. “It is evident that any attempt to conduct the plebiscite before achieving an acceptable settlement between the two parties will mean a return to war”, he warned. The Abyei referendum is for the people of this oil-rich region of the Sudan to also determine whether they remain in the North or join the South. Abyei is particularly sensitive because of the riches of the region, and no referendum commission has been set up, while leaders in the region have also failed to reach an accord with the Government of Sudan (GOS), in Khartoum, on who was eligible to vote, or Abyei’s borders. Local tensions in the region are heightening worries; Abyei itself is dominated by the Dinka Ngok ethnic group who support joining South Sudan and the Arab Misseriya nomadic groups, who migrated with their cattle into the rich pastoral lands of the region.
As it currently stands, the referendum law gives voting rights to the Dinka, who want to merge with the South and the law then empowers the commission to decide where “other Sudanese” are considered residents of the region who can then vote. The Arab Misseriya ethnic group threaten to unleash violence if they are denied the opportunity to participate in the ballot. In a report to the UN, Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said ‘the continued lack of progress is exacerbating an already tense and volatile situation on the ground”. So serious is the potential for conflict, that Alain leRoy, the UN peacekeeping chief, told the Security Council, that the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS), was already considering redeploying troops from the rest of the country to the North-South frontier. “Our best available tool against a return to war remains our commitment in favour of political agreement…of the parties on the key pending issues”, he said. Although there has been no major mobilization of troops, LeRoy however said it was “urgent” that the Abyei talks find progress. In the midst of this logjam, each side has been accusing the other of a military buildup on their common border, making UNIMIS to step up monitoring and reinforcing what it described as “hotspots”.
A sign of deterioration came to the fore again last week, when the South Sudan armed forces accused the Northern military of carrying out air strikes on one of their bases, wounding four soldiers and two civilians. Philip Aguer, a spokesperson for the SPLA, told the media that “a SAF (Sudan Armed Forces) helicopter gunship attacked SPLA positions at Kirabem, in North Bahr al-Ghazal, wounding four SPLA soldiers and two civilians. The intention of the SAF in this move is to try to disrupt the referendum process”. But the SAF denied it carried out such an attack on SPLA positions. Al-Sawarmi Khaled, SAF spokesman replied that “this is absolutely not true. We have not attacked anywhere near the border. Complicating the issues is an allegation that the South is supporting rebels fighting in the Western Sudan region of Darfur. There are reports that Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has moved its forces to the South, to receive training. Mandour al-Mahdi, a senior official of the ruling National Congress Party, in the North, told Reuters, “if you are accommodating these forces in the south, you are supplying these forces with weapons, logistics, petrol and cars, we think that this is a declaration of war against the north of the country”. The SPLA similarly denies that it aids the rebels in Darfur.
Against the background of uncertainties, the registration for the referendum continued apace in the South, and is taking place in 2, 600 registration centres and it is expected to last for 17 days. The final list of voters is expected to be published on January 4, 2011. In the Southern capital Juba, the South Sudan president showed off an ink-stained finger after registration. THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, reported from a voting registration center in the River Nile town of Melut; it quoted many of the young voters as saying that they will vote to help create a new country. 20 year old Deng Juach told the paper, “We are going to vote for separation. All of us”. 18 year old Gieth Kon Awlan said “unity is not good. We want separation”. It is the ongoing disagreement that has stalled movement on the Abyei leg of the agreement. But it is not all doom and gloom, because the latest round of North-South talks did reach some agreement. The African Union issued a statement last Monday, that the two parties agreed to maintain a “soft border”, even if (or more appropriately, when) the South votes to secede. The AU statement said such a soft border will allow pastoral communities to move back and forth and make cross border trade easier. The statement added that the soft border is essential for economic prosperity between the North and the South.
Many observers expect the South Sudan people to vote for independence; infact, the United States government has described separation as “inevitable”. The London TELEGRAPH newspaper, last September, reported that in preparation for the referendum’s aftermath, the United States had begun a “major ramp-up” of a civilian task force in South Sudan, amid fears that violence could follow the splitting of the Sudan into two countries. TELEGRAPH’s defence correspondent, Thomas Harding, said the newly formed US Civilian Response Corps “is building a significant presence across the southern half of the African country”. Robert Loftis, chief of the Civilian Response Corps, told TELEGRAPH in an interview, that he was sending teams around South Sudan to “observe, report and monitor”. Loftis said his team will be able to call in “larger organizations to come in and help”, adding that “if they vote for independence we will be looking for what sort of assistance we can provide to help them get it off to as good a start as they can. Or if the vote is for continued national unity what you need to do is to reconcile north and south”. With South Sudan producing 480,000 barrels of oil per day, and possibilities to produce even more, it is no surprise that the imperialists are swarming like vultures!
Yet there is no gainsaying the challenge which the South faces, in the run up to the vote. The South is one of the poorest regions of the world, despite the oil wealth, and 85 per cent of Southerners cannot read and write, making voter education a challenge. However, there is a shared history of adversity and the ruins of a two-decade war, which killed two million people, on which the Southern leadership hopes to ride to an emphatic victory and the creation of a new state. The situation seems to be pointing inevitably towards just one direction: after the referendum in South Sudan in January, the world will witness the birth of a new country and the split of Africa’s largest country into two. What the future will hold for South Sudan is still up in the air. But this reporter travelled in South Sudan in 2006, including attending the first anniversary memorial service for John Garang. The people of South Sudan are some of the friendliest and humane I have ever met, in all my years of wandering around our continent. And frankly, I have always asked myself just what choice these long-suffering people would have made, if Doctor John Garang were alive today. Maybe that is a very harsh thought in today’s circumstance!