The referendum being conducted in Sudan will put an end to the continuous struggle by the people of southern Sudan since the country’s independence in 1956. The preliminary results announced on Sunday indicated that nearly 99% of southern Sudanese voters chose secession. So far the referendum has surprised many observers who expected the process to be bloody and to fall below international standards of fairness and transparency. In fact, the people have shown the world that they can express their choice not only with determination but also civility.
But there are still challenges ahead. Although there is much optimism that the referendum will end peacefully, the way the leadership of the north accepts the result will determine the final outcome. While the north would have liked the referendum to confirm unity, president Omar al-Bashir recently confirmed he would not only accept the result, but would also support the building of the new state if the choice was secession. Of course, it remains to be seen whether he will keep to his word once the results have been declared.
In the case of secession, large numbers of southern settlers in the north may be at risk from attacks, while in southern Sudan the announcement could trigger violence towards northerners living there. The southern Sudan president, General Salva Kiir, has committed himself not only to protecting the lives and properties of northerners in the south, but to allowing them to become citizens of the new state.
There is one more issue upon which the future of the south rests. A simultaneous referendum in which the people of the Abyei area, along the north-south border, will decide whether they wish to join the south. The Abyei area and its people were transferred from the south to the north in 1905 to protect the Ngok Dinka from attacks and slave raids by Misseriya Arab nomads. The 2005 comprehensive peace agreement sought to define and demarcate the area of Ngok Dinka with a decision agreed by the parties to be final and binding. However, the ruling National Congress party (NCP) rejected the decision.
Despite the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague finally resolving the issue of ownership of Abyei, the NCP has consistently obstructed its demarcation because it is rich with oil. In addition, the party has been using the Misseriya in counterinsurgency warfare in the south. This has raised the Misseriya’s expectations for ownership of Abyei as a reward for not joining the Darfur rebels if war erupts again.
The tension in Abyei is high, and if things are not resolved before the end of the peace agreement’s interim period in July, there is the risk of renewed conflict between the north and the south.
The secession of southern Sudan will set a precedent for many African regions demanding the right to self-determination. And within Sudan, the predominately African states of Darfur, Nuba Mountains, eastern Sudan and Blue Nile may opt to struggle for this right. There are growing voices from some Islamic extremists calling for the remaining Sudan to be redefined in Arab-Islamic terms.
A newly born state would face many challenges, but it would also have a clear vision and a unifying political leadership. Although some observers would paint it as a failed state even before it is born, the south stands a better chance of becoming a viable state than the remaining part of Sudan does. What the south lacks most is a capacity to manage its enormous resources. But with support from the international community and from its diaspora, the new Southern Sudan could emerge as one of Africa’s strongest economies.
By Luka Biong Deng, minister of cabinet affairs for the national government of Sudan, and a senior member of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement.