Monday, January 17, 2011

Southern Sudan Votes on Referendum for its Independence

The Economist: South Sudan: Independence Beckons
Wikipedia: Comprehensive Peace Agreement
The New York Times: Referendum Logos Accent Challenges Facing Sudan

Sudan: Will the North Survive if the South Secedes

Sudan has been a country torn with wars and conflicts for a long time, having two civil wars that lasted decades and left over 2 million people dead and 4 million people displaced. The source of much of the conflict plaguing the northeast African country is clashes between the mostly Muslim northerners and the animist and Christian southerners. In 2005, as part of an agreement that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War, the Government of Sudan promised the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement that southern Sudan would be entitled to a referendum vote concerning its independence. The time for the referendum has come; southern Sudan will, in a vote from January 9 through January 15, decide whether it should become an independent country or stay unified with the north.

The United States has been involved in Sudan since it helped mediate the agreement that ended the civil war. More recently U.S. officials have increased pressure on the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to allow the referendum the chance to go forward. Despite the agreement, many people wondered if al-Bashir would allow such a vote to occur since the 80% of the country’s oil reserves are located in the south. If the U.S. is satisfied with the Sudanese government’s treatment of the south and the western part of the country, Darfur, Sudan might receive benefits such as debt forgiveness, exchange ambassadors, removal from the list of sponsors of terrorism, and the lifting of punitive sanctions the U.S. previously imposed on the nation.

The referendum ballot itself had to be crafted as straightforwardly as possible in order for all the southerners to understand and make their choice correctly; about 85% of the south’s populace is illiterate. The choice for independence depicts a single raised hand, while a vote for unity with the north is a picture of two clasped hands. There have been over 3,000 voting centers set up across the country for southerners, as well as voting centers in foreign countries with large groups of southern Sudanese that were displaced by the conflict.

The terms of the referendum require a voter turnout of at least 60% for the results of the vote to be valid. Southerners have been working steadily to encourage its residents, especially the illiterate, to get to the polls. Possibly the worst outcome for Sudan would be a referendum in which less than 60% of the population voted. Although the south agreed to the 60% threshold as part of the peace agreement, many southerners will see any kind of majority vote as justification for independence, which will likely cause the eruption of more violence.

Even if southern Sudan does get its independence, the new country will face huge obstacles immediately. The new government will have to formalize a separation agreement with the north. One main issue will arise out of how to split the Abyei area where northerners and southerners both operate oil-rich fields and use the land for grazing. Along with the formal agreement, southern Sudan faces internal problems. Including a high illiteracy rate, the south has serious development issues such as poverty and infrastructure. The United Nations reports that about half of southerners are “food deprived” and more than half of its people live on less than seventy-five cents a day. Experts indicate that the new country will need decades of intervention and help from foreign countries, including millions of dollars in aid. The result of the referendum is scheduled to be announced in February. Whatever the result, southern Sudan will have major hurdles to overcome if it wants to grow into a developed and peaceful area.

Discussion Questions:
1. If southern Sudan does gain independence from the north, what will its biggest challenge as a new country be?
2. What, if anything, should world leaders do if the majority of southern Sudan voters vote for independence, but the 60% voter turnout requirement is not met?

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