South Sudan - independence beckons
Only weeks ago, international observers and local politicians were outdoing each other with predictions of the horrors to befall South Sudan around the time of its independence referendum. There was talk of mass rape, armed incursions from the north, even a resumption of full-scale civil war. Some reckoned the vote on January 9th would not take place at all.
Such fears were not outlandish. Sudan has gone through decades of conflict between Muslim northerners and Christian and animist southerners. Some 2m people had been killed before the two sides, six years ago, signed a peace accord which included a provision to give the southerners an eventual vote for independence. Northern leaders have made half-hearted attempts to derail or delay the creation of a new state. Sudan’s defence minister, among others, darkly warned against the dire consequences of secession.
But previously restive border provinces have remained quiet, at least by local standards. Two villagers were killed and four injured in an attack four days before Christmas by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a vicious Ugandan rebel movement that haunts the south-western borderlands and was at one time supported by the north to weaken the south. Incidents of violence have persisted here and there but have been isolated and contained.
Foreign diplomats and southern Sudanese leaders are scratching their heads in wonder at getting to a point where the referendum seems pretty sure to take place on time and with relatively few immediate worries. It is the best outcome they could have hoped for. Being so close to fulfilling their national dream, many southerners would be deeply disappointed—and their leaders hard-pressed to rein in armed supporters—should there be a severe last-minute hiccup.
American pressure has helped to ease the way. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama paid much less attention to Sudan than his predecessor did, but that changed in the middle of last year, when he tripled the number of American officials in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, and sent a flurry of envoys to Khartoum, the hitherto undivided country’s capital, to press President Omar al-Bashir to let the south go. The Americans offered to normalise relations with Mr Bashir’s government provided he behaved decently towards the south (and in the western region of Darfur). If he at last proves co-operative, the Americans may remove Sudan from their list of state sponsors of terrorism, exchange ambassadors, lift the punitive sanctions they imposed several years ago, and forgive part of the country’s $40 billion of debt.
Crucially, the Americans, who helped broker the peace deal between north and south in 2005, also went along with bending some of the referendum rules. To meet tight deadlines, not all 3.5m registered voters have been properly identified. A waiting period between registration and voting was shortened from 90 days to 30. And ballot papers were simplified so that the illiterate—some 85% of southerners—could vote more easily; a picture of two clasped hands stands for unity with the north, a single raised hand means independence.
Observers from the European Union and from the Atlanta-based Carter Center say they are happy with the preparations. Except for two incidents in Akobo and Kiir Adem (see map), registration went smoothly; 3,000 voting centres have been set up across the south, in northern districts with large clusters of ethnic southerners, and in foreign countries with a big diaspora of Sudanese southerners.
The official result is not expected for several weeks, yet the outcome is in no doubt. The number of people intending to vote for unity with the north is tiny. Your correspondent failed to find a single one.
Mr Bashir this week acknowledged, at least indirectly, the complete lack of southern support for the government in Khartoum. He may even have accepted the likelihood of separation. On a visit to Juba on January 4th, he declared, as his southern counterpart stood beside him, “If the vote is for secession, we will support you and congratulate you.”
The thuggish yet canny Mr Bashir has lost most of his means of manipulation. For years he sent weapons to southerners hostile to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the dominant southern group, to destabilise the region. But many of these rebels recently reconciled themselves to the southern leadership in return for money and promises of amnesty.
At the same time, the south’s army, a collection of hardened bush fighters with an increasingly sophisticated arsenal, tightened its grip on the north-south border by deploying additional units three months ago. They disrupted the transfer of arms to the biggest renegade, George Athor. A helicopter carrying his chief of operations was captured at a refuelling stop with help from Americans. Mr Athor subsequently agreed to a ceasefire.
The biggest worry for the south and its backers abroad is turnout. At least 60% of eligible voters must cast ballots for the referendum result to be valid. “The horror of horrors would be getting a 59% turnout figure,” says a Western diplomat. Having come this close to independence, most southerners would see any majority as justification for secession. But their leaders have promised to abide strictly by the rules, to deprive the north of any grounds to refuse independence.
Hoping to ensure a high turnout, southern leaders have organised a publicity campaign unlike anything this poor and remote part of Africa has seen. Stickers, posters and T-shirts favouring secession fill Juba’s streets, most of them still made of mud. “The final walk to freedom,” reads one. A giant clock counts down the minutes to self-rule.
In remote villages picture posters beckon the illiterate to polling stations. The church, the best-run and most respected institution in the south, has swung behind the campaign. In between sermons and gospel songs during services, priests urge believers to vote. “It is your duty,” Juba’s Catholic bishop told his congregation.
The government sounds increasingly confident as the referendum draws near. But a smooth transition is another matter. Before declaring independence, scheduled for July 9th, north and south must finalise a separation agreement. A formula must be found for sharing the oil revenue from jointly operated fields. A method must be devised for joint control of disputed areas such as oil-rich Abyei, which lies on the border between north and south and which is not having its own referendum, as mandated in the 2005 peace accord.
Negotiating a final deal is a job for the sort of tough guy that George Clooney, an actor-cum-campaigner, likes to play in his films: sly, ruthlessly pragmatic but with a big heart. Mr Clooney is currently making one of his regular forays up the Nile in the service of Sudanese peace and brotherly love. In a recent newspaper article he urged South Sudan to accept a divorce deal “of the kind that can leave a bad taste in your mouth but that gets the job done”.
The Economist, Jan. 6th, 2011