Q & A: The road to the referendum

An account of key events that shaped the road to Sudan’s January 9 vote.

Sudan referendum

People of south Sudan will choose either to remain part of a unified Sudan or to secede [EPA] 

Sudan faces a decisive moment when its semi-autonomous south goes to a referendum on January 9 to decide whether to remain part of Africa’s largest country or secede.

A quick Q&A to the referendum:

Why a referendum?

When, who and why?

Who are the main players?

What are the sticking issues?

Peace or violence?

What are the regional concerns?

Why a referendum?

Sudan’s north-south civil war was Africa’s longest running civil conflict, flaring first in 1955.

The first civil war between the dominant north and the south, which wanted regional autonomy, lasted till 1972. Half a million people died over the 17 years of conflict.

It got reignited in 1983 when the agreement that ended the fighting failed to completely dispel the tensions.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the second phase and promised southerners self-determination through a referendum on independence from the north.

Since then the northern ruling National Congress Party [NCP] and the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM] have bickered over implementing almost every detail of the 2005 accord which had unity as an option. Few now believe that option in on the table.

Many southerners believe they are ethnically or religiously distinct from the mostly Arab and Muslim north. An antagonistic history of war and slave trading that has haunted north- south relations even before Sudan’s independence in 1956 from the British and Egyptians.

Southerners say economic boom and development has benefited only the north, especially the Khartoum elite.

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When, who and why?

Why the 9th of January?

The CPA is set to expire on the 9 July 2011, and it calls for the referendum to take place six months prior to that date.  The referendum is a Sudanese process, organised jointly by the CPA parties and conducted by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC).

Who can vote?

According to the referendum commission, anyone who has a parent or ancestor from a southern tribe indigenous to the south can vote. Also anyone who has been permanently resident, or whose parents or grandparents have been in the south since the January 1, 1956 independence can vote. 

Southerners whose families left the south before independence must return south to register and vote.

Voting will occur not only in southern Sudan, but throughout Sudan for people of southern origin, and in eight countries that have large populations of southern Sudanese (Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

However the vague guidelines and decades of inter-marriage and movement of tribes means it may be difficult to verify who is a southerner or not.

Those planning the plebiscite estimate there are around 5.5 million southerners eligible to vote inside and outside Sudan although not all will register.

What will they be voting for?

People of south Sudan will choose either to remain part of a unified Sudan or to secede. Simultaneously, people of the oil rich “Abyei” region, located at the North-South border, will choose to either join the South or remain with the North in the event of a Southern secession.

How will it work?

The vote will be by secret ballot and had its own registration process.

The final decision on the referendum requires a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one vote cast, contingent upon 60 per cent of registered voters casting their votes.

The referendum commission has approved a budget of $372 million, but with a reduced timetable it will likely cost less.

Some 10,800 staff will work in almost 3,000 referendum centres. More than 14,000 police will secure the process in the south. Voting is     due to begin on Jan. 9 and last one week.

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Who are the main players?

The north’s dominant National Congress Party(NCP): Supports unity but says it would respect the result of the vote.

Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM): The biggest party in the South. Says the South is voting “for freedom”. The SPLM and other opposition parties in Sudan united under the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) signed with the NCP the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005.

Both, the NCP and the SPLM, strengthened their already strong grip on their respective halves of the country with overwhelming victories in April elections.

Omar al-Bashir: The president of Sudan pledged to respect the will of the people of Southern Sudan should they choose to secede. He came to power in 1989 when he led a bloodless military coup that ousted the government of prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as the first to be charged with genocide. The ICC has issued an arrest warrant against him.

Salva Kiir Mayardit: Was sworn in as the president of the government of south Sudan and the first vice president of Sudan on the 11th of August 2005. He was the deputy of John Garang, the charismatic founder of the SPLM who died in a plane crash in July 2005. Kiir has a turbulent relationship with the NCP and has warned of an outbreak of violence if the referendum is postponed.

There are other key political figures in Sudan that we should keep an eye on including  Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the National Umma Party, one of the main opposition parties in the north, and Hassan al-Turabi, a veteran Islamist political leader who supported Bashir’s coup in 1989. Relations between the two men turned sour however, and Turabi was arrested and released several times. He was finally released in July 2010. Turabi leads the Popular National Party.

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What are the sticking issues?

The leadership in the North and the South remain divided on a number of issues related to the upcoming referendum, including:

The North-South border demarcation: The two parties (NCP and SPLM) have still not agreed on 20 per cent of their shared border despite years of debate and experts’ reports. Northern and southern armies have already accused each other of building up troops near ‘Heglig’, a central oilfield claimed by both sides and a potential flashpoint. Some tribes along the border are known to be arming themselves, in some cases with the support of the armies of the north and the south. It creates a series of flashpoints along the line of division, one of the most volatile of which may be Abyei.

The disputed ‘Abyei’ region: The two sides have not agreed on the composition of the referendum committee and remain at loggerheads over who has the right to vote in the oil rich region on the 9th of January.

Oil revenue sharing: The two sides have not reached a deal on how oil revenues will be shared. Crude provides around 45 per cent of government revenues in the north and up to 98 per cent in the south. Most of known reserves lie in the south but the only way to get them to market at present lies through the north’s refineries and port.

Citizenship: There could be widespread unrest and displacement if NCP ministers go through with threats to cancel the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of southerners living in the north after the secession vote. And whereas the government of south Sudan estimates the southern population in the north at some 1.5 million, the North has put the figure at between 2.5 and 5 million, in what the south sees as Khartoum’s attempt to register ghost voters so as to make the 60 per cent voter turnout unachievable.

Grazing rights: Sudan is home to a number of nomadic tribes, many of whom cross the line of the proposed border to feed and water their cattle. The question of what they do and where they go has still to be looked at.

Hegemony: Many of the smaller tribes of southern Sudan are concerned about being dominated by the bigger tribes, they fear the hegemony of the Dinka tribe since Salva Kiir and most of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership is Dinka.

Bad debt: Northern and southern leaders have still not agreed how much of Sudan’s bad debt the south would have to share if its population, as widely expected, chooses secession. The World Bank estimates that Sudan had a total bad debt of around $25 billion.

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Peace or violence?

What are the immediate challenges?

Analysts say there are three issues that constitute real challenges for all concerned.

– Conducting the referendum as scheduled.

– Whether the result would be accepted.

– There are concerns that the two sides may return to war.

So what are the chances of violence breaking out?

The disputed oil-producing Abyei region is supposed to hold a simultaneous plebisicite on whether to join the south or the north but deep north-south divisions over who will vote and who will plan it mean this vote will either be much delayed or may not happen at all.

Most analysts believe Abyei, the site of north-south clashes since 2005, could remain Sudan’s “Kashmir” and local tensions there could spark a more general war if left to fester.

Other areas could include oil fields close to the still disputed border like Heglig and Unity. Border states Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile could also be flashpoints of violence and both north and south armies have traded accusations of troop build ups along the unmarked border.

What is the international community doing about keeping the peace?

If badly handled, Sudan’s upcoming referendum could unravel the relative peace seen in the north-south relations since the signing of the CPA in 2005. It could also destabilise the whole region.

So far a number of players including the United States and the African Union High-level Implementation Panel for Sudan (AUHIP) led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, have done relatively well to minimise overt hostilities and to facilitate negotiations of post-2011 referendum issues, despite not reaching consensus on a number of them as explained above.

Washington has promised to help Khartoum with debt relief and reduce trade sanctions if Sudan delivers a peaceful referendum and settles Darfur. The United States has also promised to look into the possibility of removing Sudan from the list of ‘states sponsoring terrorism’ if Sudanese leaders made progress in resolving the outstanding issues towards the referendum.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a report by European and African experts put the price of a resumption of a civil war in Sudan at more than $100 billion, and said the economic fallout would extend beyond Sudan’s borders. [link story]

What else is at stake?

Whatever happens, the referendum promises to alter the face of Sudan and the question of what will happen next remains a key one.

Assuming the South secedes, as most analysts predict, the north will have to deal with the issue of diminished resources (given that it gets much of its revenue for oil from the south) and will also have to reconfigure its governmental structures and its constitution to reflect the new realities.

Concerning the South, the question has been the viability of the independent state in the event of secession. In a region with only about 65 km of tarmac, and amid claims of corruption and nepotism in the Government of South Sudan, there are genuine fears that an ‘independent South Sudan’ is likely to face serious, although not insurmountable, challenges.

The result of the referendum is not only significant for the future of Sudan, but also for the strategic and security interests of its neighbours and the broader international community.

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What are the regional concerns?

What are their fears?

Many African nations favour Sudan’s unity because they fear the split could fuel secessionist tensions in their own countries.

Sudan is also the axis of the continent’s Arab north-African and black sub-Saharan divide. Many will see a split as a wider failure to overcome those differences.

Some worry secession could lead to demands for autonomy in Sudan’s other regions including Darfur or the east who have also rebelled against Khartoum and the country could disintegrate.

Egypt had proposed a looser confederation as an alternative to secession and its foreign minister said in November that it would not object to a referendum delay of several months.

Libya’s Muhammad Gaddafi warned in October that southern secession could spur separatist movements across Africa and scare off investors.

Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile for its water, and is watching the vote closely for any effect on colonial-era pacts that give it most of the river’s annual flow.

Sudan lies astride the middle reaches of the Nile, the primary source of water for mainly desert Egypt. The White Nile, one of the river’s two main tributaries, runs through south Sudan.

Egypt fears an independent south Sudan may come under the influence of rival Nile basin nations like Ethiopia that have been complaining Egypt uses more than its fair share of the river’s water.

What else are the neighbours worried about?

Egypt has also aired worries that the referendum could trigger violence and an influx of Sudanese migrants into Egypt.

Contingency plans drawn up by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggest up to 50,000 southern Sudanese could be displaced to Egypt in 2011 if war breaks out after southern independence.

The figure for Uganda is 100,000, Kenya 100,000 and Ethiopia 80,000.

Security problems after the referendum might also push some of the roughly 1.5 million southern Sudanese living in and around the Sudanese capital Khartoum to flee north to Egypt.

Egyptian officials have suggested a big influx of migrants might be unwelcome in a country already home to tens of thousands of refugees and whose own growing population has strained infrastructure and social services.

In 2005, Egyptian police killed more than two dozen Sudanese when they broke up a sit-in by asylum seekers demanding resettlement in the West.

Egypt hosts about 18,000 registered Southern Sudanese refugees, many displaced during decades of civil war in which an estimated 2 million people were killed and 4 million fled, destabilising much of east Africa.

While the refugee estimates are worst-case scenarios, what’s most likely to happen is displacement within southern Sudan, from southern Sudan into the neighbouring countries for asylum, and maybe from Khartoum to southern Sudan and to neighbouring countries like Eritrea and Egypt.

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Source: Al Jazeera

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