All across the Autonomous Area of Southern Sudan, people have lined up by the thousands to cast their vote in the independence referendum, carried out under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War. This vote has so far proceeded peacefully, resolving months of concerns about whether Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a dictator who has dominated Sudan with military and Islamist backing since 1989, would use a variety of tactics from stalling to intimidation, to vote manipulation to violence to break the independence movement and maintain control of the region’s resources.
Owing to the region’s geographical remoteness, poverty, and over half a century dominated by civil war, 3 out of 4 Southern Sudanese adults cannot read. As a consequence the referendum has been carried out with votes for 1 of a pair of images; 2 clasped hands in the case of unity with the North, 1 open hand in the case of secession. 60% turnout is required for the results of the referendum to be legally-binding, a condition which is expected to be met easily; the vote is expected to be overwhelmingly in favor of independence.
The polls will remain open for the course of this week, to give voters in remote areas the chance to turn out.
While all of the current Sudan has a history as an economic unit, this has generally involved bad relations. The North of Sudan is culturally Arab and in a sense, the first Middle Eastern country to spawn an Islamist movement through the Mahdist Revolt; the South is very much a part of Africa culturally, with animist beliefs and Christianity by far its principal religious presence. The South is much poorer and has long been less-educated; in the colonial period it was much closer to the British than the North. The North felt held back by Anglo-Egyptian control, while the South recognized colonial administration prevented Northern dominance. Slave traders from the North intermittently preyed upon the non-Islamic South; Sudan is 1 of 3 countries in the World where slavery is still legal.
The New York Times reports that there have been isolated skirmishes, largely in the disputed territory of Abyei along the border, that have killed about 40 people; however these seem to have occurred between armed nomadic tribes aligned with the North and units of the Southern army, and are not part of any apparent broader campaign. Omar Hassan al-Bashir offered assurances during a visit to Southern Sudan earlier this month that his government would recognize the results of the referendum. We now have every reason to expect that, the many challenges confronting the new country notwithstanding, Southern Sudan will have a lasting political settlement. We owe the success of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and provided for this referendum to the diligence and commitment of a surprising cast of people, among them not only John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM commander who led the revolt in the South through dark times, but President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who were crucial in brokering the Peace Agreement, and President Barack Obama and Senator John Kerry, who remained engaged all this time and kept a watchful eye but remained receptive towards the Sudanese government in the months leading up to the referendum.
The New York Times gave an interesting account of the enduring post-colonial fears of emboldening separatist movements in Africa through the division of states experiencing unequal development. There are other regions–among them the Darfur region in Sudan, the Ogaden in Ethiopia, Somaliland in Somalia, the north in Cote d’Ivoire and several parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo–where enduring internal divisions are blithely ignored by existing international boundaries. Maybe a failure by government to meet certain minimal standards for humane treatment of a its own population should serve as a “trigger” for a loss of sovereignty over certain regions. Such a measure might fall under the Law of Unintended Consequences, but then it should also suffuse callous dictators with a sense of urgency the next time they contemplate or tolerate atrocities to tighten their grip on the hinterlands.