On Tuesday, this week, the Sudanese parliament adopted a key law that sets the stage for a referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan. The adoption of the law removes a major dispute which has threatened to jeopardize the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the bitter civil war, between the Khartoum-based Government of Sudan (GOS) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. The new law adopted by parliament included “a contested provision”, according to Agency reports, demanded by Southern politicians, which requires Diaspora southerners to cast their ballots in the referendum planned for 2011. South Sudan would choose either to remain a part of the unified Sudan or become an independent country.
The Southern politicians had insisted upon the “contested provision”, because of fears that large numbers of Southern votes in the North can be compromised by the government in Khartoum. The new article states that South Sudanese living outside the south, and born before January 1, 1956, the date of Sudan’s independence, must vote in the south. But those living outside of the south and born after that date, would be able to vote in their place of residence, whether in the north, south or abroad. The adoption of the new provision removes a major blockage on the route to what is still expected to be an acrimonious process. But it underscored the depth of distrust between the two sides to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), of 2005.
The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had initially deleted the provision in a previous version of the law adopted last week, allowing for absentee votes in the referendum. It had based its move on a claim that the article “violated the interim constitution which gives every Sudanese freedom of movement from one region to another”. The move prompted a walkout from parliament by MPs from the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, which is the ruling party in the South, as well as other southern parties. A senior official of the NCP, Ibrahim Ghandour, was quoted by the press as saying that the decision to adopt the provision, was taken “to give our southern Sudanese brothers more impetus to vote for the unity of Sudan during the referendum”. The SPLM’s deputy secretary general, Yasser Arman, also described the outcome as “a new day for the establishment of trust. The people of the south deserve the right to a referendum and more besides”.
Negotiations for the new legislation had taken several months of often tortuous and problematic sessions between northern and southern politicians. Under its terms, an independent South Sudan will be recognized if it is approved by 51% of voters at the 2011 referendum, if there is a 60% turn out of voters. The two parties- NCP and SPLM, formed a national unity government, following the CPA of 2005, and both had pledged to make a united Sudan an “attractive” option in 2011, but in the past few years, tensions have increasingly led to suspicion which has in turn fuelled sentiments for separation, especially in the South. The death of John Garang, the founder of the SPLM, and a genuine Sudanese nationalist, has removed the figure who might likely nudge Southerners in the direction of a vote for a united country. His successor Salva Kirr Mayardit does not have the same clout as Garang, and his vision is even less broad, leading a nouveau bourgeoisie in the South running a government that is dogged by accusations of corruption.
Many of the people in the South are now hoping that the referendum will give them the opportunity to accede to an independent country. One of the most difficult issues to untangle in the process will be the fate of the oil-rich Abyei region, which is claimed by the two sides and which has seen several bloody clashes between forces of the GOS and the SPLM, in the past two years. Abyei’s population consists of Ngok Dinka ethnic groups, seen to be loyal to the south as well as Messiriya Arab nomadic groups that are seen to be supporters of the GOS in Khartoum. How the issue of the demarcation of the border is handled will largely overshadow the lead to the independence referendum, since both sides want to own the oil riches of the region of Abyei.
The outgoing year has been a very difficult year in South Sudan. According to the international charity organization, Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF), at least 2000 people have died and 250,000 have fled their homes following violence in the south, These have worsened the humanitarian crisis in the region, considering trhat over 2million people were killed in the civil war that ended in 2005. The violence in 2009 were described as the worst since the signing of the CPA. Previous acts of violence were linked to land clashes and cattle rustling; however, the MSF operations director for the Sudan, Stephen Goetghebuer, told the Associated Press (AP) that this year, “villages have been attacked, and raiders have targeted and killed women and children”. MSF said that 87% of the people it treated this year were victims of gunshot wounds, but that the number of people killed in the violence is three times higher than the number of wounded. “There are very few survivors. People are killed massively”, according to Goethebuer.
The increase in violent activities has led to the expression of concern by officials of the United Nations as well as the GOS who say the violence in the south can hamper preparations for the national and presidential elections scheduled to hold in April 2010. An official of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS), Garang Garang Diing who spoke to the Associated Press, blamed some of the violence on the North and the rest he said was due to incidents of cattle rustling. He also denied that the southern government had prior knowledge of the attacks saying that there was evidence of elements of Sudan’s northern government’s involvement in some of the attacks. Diing linked the growing violence to the 2011 referendum, arguing that the north could be causing the violence to make the south look ungovernable.
It should also be recalled that the South Sudanese president, and Sudan’s vice president, Salva Kirr Mayardit, had urged Southerners in October 2009, to choose independence in the 2011 referendum, if they want to be free. “When you reach your ballot boxes the choice is yours: you want to vote for unity so that you become a second class in your own country, that choice is yours”. He was addressing a cathedral congregation, in Juba, the Southern capital, during a service to launch a prayer campaign for elections due in 2010 and the referendum in 2011. Salva Kirr said “if you want to vote for independence so that you are a free person in your independent state, that will be your own choice and we will respect the choice of the people”. What is certain is that the fate of the Sudan will be determined one way or the other come 2011, but the prelude to that decision might be very uncertain and bloody for the long suffering people of the Sudan.