People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

January 30, 2011

South Sudan Referendum: A Fait Accompli


Yohannan Chemerapally


FROM all available indications, a new country will be adorning the map of Africa very soon. In the second week of January, the people of South Sudan participated in a week long referendum exercise. At stake was the future of Africa’s largest country.  The central government in Khartoum adhered to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which had brought the fifty year long conflict to a close. More than two million Sudanese had lost their lives in the turmoil which started soon after Sudan gained independence from the British. Under the terms of the Peace Agreement brokered under the auspices of the previous Bush administration, the North had agreed to allow their compatriots from the South to opt for either unity or separation. Until the eleventh hour, western governments and the media had cast doubts about the sincerity of the government led by president Omar al Bashir to allow the holding of a fair and free referendum. On a visit to Juba, the capital of the South, a few days before the referendum vote, the Sudanese president had reiterated that he would abide by the verdict. “If the vote is for secession, we will support you and congratulate you”, he had said during the visit.  




Many African leaders had warned against the break-up of Sudan, the continent’s largest country, arguing that it would have a domino effect. Almost all the countries in the region have inherited borders drawn up arbitrarily by the colonial powers. Many governments fear that they will now come under pressure from the West to redraw the map of the continent. In Southern Sudan, the people are hailing Americans as their liberators. The African Union (AU) had taken a stand against country’s being divided on the basis of ethnicity or religion, fearing that the political map of the continent would unravel in no time. So far only Ethiopia has had the distinction of voluntarily allowing an independent country to emerge from within its territory. Eritrea broke from Ethiopia in 1993. From initial bonhomie, the two countries have since fought a war over disputed borders. Other countries on the African continent have experienced serious attempts at secession. The attempt to detach mineral rich Katanga from the Congo, with the backing of western mercenaries in the early sixties was the first serious attempt. In Nigeria, the “Biafra” war started just six years after independence. The civil war in Nigeria from 1966-70 led to the loss of more than a million lives. The wounds from the war are still to heal. Like in the Sudan, most of Nigeria’s oil wealth is in South of the country.  There are many separatist movements already active on the continent.


The turning point in Sudan was in the seventies when the military ruler Gen. Jaffar Nimeiry suddenly introduced Islamic law in the country at a time when the South was enjoying autonomy for the first time. The waters were further muddied when in the late eighties, Khartoum decreed that strict Sharia laws were to be implemented. Though the laws were applicable only in the North, it sent the wrong message to the mainly Christian and animist South. John Garang who from the eighties had emerged as the undisputed leader of the South had at one time rejected separation saying that the goal was to convert Sudan into a secular and socialist state. But after the collapse of the Socialist bloc and the overthrow of his ally, president Mengistu Haile Merriam of Ethiopia, Garang changed course and became an ally of the West. But for his death in a helicopter crash soon after the signing of the CPA, he would have been the president of the new state that will come into being in June, 2011. His former deputy, Salva Kiir, will be the new president of South Sudan.


In the week long polling that took place under the glare of thousands of western observers, there were comparatively few instances of violence. And the violence that occurred was mainly a result of clashes between tribal militias in the South.  After the week long polling, the chairman of the South’s Referendum Commission, Ibrahim Khalil announced that more than 83 per cent of the eligible voters in the South and 53 per cent of those registered in the North had cast their votes. There are around one to two million Southerners living in Khartoum for generations. Many of them had however registered to vote in the South. The eligibility limit was spelt out in the 2005 peace accords, for the vote to be deemed valid. In all there were 3.5 million registered to vote. 80 per cent of the electorate is illiterate.


Celebrations in the southern capital city of Juba have already started though independence will only be formally declared in the middle of the year. Jimmy Carter, the former US president, who is heading an observer’s mission, has said that the vote was fair and the counting would also be done in a transparent manner. “The likelihood is that the referendum result would be for independence”, he told the media. The Obama administration seems to be very happy at the outcome. According to an Egyptian scholar on Sudan, Hani Raslan of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the US “is dead set on seeing the emergence of an independent state of Southern Sudan to achieve political aims on the African continent”. He told the IPS news agency that the US insistence on independence for the South has more to do with its geo-political ambitions. Raslan pointed out that in the final days of the Bush administration, the US had set up the Africa Command (Africom).The central component of this new command will be a large military base. This base is likely to come up in South Sudan. Kosovo independence was also mid-wifed by the US. Today Kosovo hosts the biggest US military base in the Balkans.


As reward for Khartoum’s accommodative stance, senior US state department officials have hinted that Sudan will be dropped from the list of states supporting terrorism and sanctions lifted for allowing peaceful secession.


Other key countries like China also sent a big contingent of observers for the referendum. Beijing has big investments in the hydro-carbon sector in the South. At present, around 60 per cent of the oil produced in South is bought by China. India too has a sizeable stake in the petroleum sector but is not as big a player as China. 24,000 Chinese work in the South. China, seeing the writing on the wall, had already started cultivating good relations with the political leadership in the South. China opened a consulate in Juba in 2008, which was then upgraded to a full embassy last year. Pagan Anum, the secretary general of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) has said that China played a key role “in consolidating the smooth implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement”. India’s role in comparison has been noticeably low key. The Southern Sudan exercise is an example of people exercising their right of self determination. Like Kosovo’s independence, South Sudan’s independence has set a precedent that will no doubt be encouraging to separatists in the Indian subcontinent.  Helmy Sharawi of the Cairo based Arab-Africa Centre contrasted Washington’s enthusiasm for the Sudan referendum to the indifference shown to a similar referendum proposal for Kashmir by the UNSC in 1948.




But before independence for the South is formalised, there are many outstanding issues still to be resolved. These include border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenues. Right now, the oil revenues are shared equally but the agreement between the North and the South expires in July this year. The two sides have not been able to come to an agreement on the issue so far. Another contentious issue is the dispute over Abyei, an oil producing province situated along the North-South border. Though the residents of Abyei were not allowed to participate in the referendum, there were clashes between the Dinka ethnic group and Misseriya Arab tribesmen. Around 38 people were killed in the clashes. Carter gave a clean chit to Khartoum saying that the Sudanese army was in no way involved in the clashes.


Abyei will be holding a plebiscite of its own to decide its future course but disagreements over the voters list has forced the UN to postpone the vote for the time being. Abyei is important for the North as most of the oil producing areas fall within South Sudan. But Khartoum controls the pipelines through which the oil is exported to the international markets. 90 per cent of Sudan’s export earnings are from oil. Landlocked South Sudan’s only direct access to the sea at this juncture is through Sudanese ports in the north and its economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports. In the short term at least, the South will have to depend on Khartoum’s cooperation to get its oil into the international market. But there are indications that plans are afoot to build an alternative pipeline through Kenya that would end the dependency on the North for the export of oil. The issue of sharing the waters of the Nile is also bound to come up, sooner than later. Already Egypt is threatening action against up-stream states like Ethiopia for diverting the Nile waters. As Egypt had a big stake in neighbouring Sudan, Cairo had been sending high level delegations to the meet with the southern leadership to convince them to opt for unity in the run-up to the referendum.


The new country will also be facing serious developmental challenges. South Sudan which is bigger than Spain has asphalted roads totalling less than 100 km. The South, scarred by decades of war, has few hospitals or schools but is overflowing with guns and militias. Large scale corruption, triggered by massive oil revenues, has already reared its head. Inter-ethnic disputes have been increasingly over revenue sharing and pastoral rights are turning bloodier. The Nuer and the Shiluk ethnic groups are alienated from the Dinka, who dominate the SPLM. The problems of Sudan will not be solved by southern secession. Darfur is still on the front burner as far as the Americans and the West is concerned. Their attention will now turn to that troubled region of Sudan. Other restive ethnic groups along Sudan’s border with Ethiopia and Eritrea are trying to raise the banner of secession.