Southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote for independence—splitting the largest country in Africa and the Arab world in two—in a referendum on January 9. The referendum was designed to be the culmination of a peace process ending decades of conflict between the north and the south, but there are lingering fears that tensions could erupt into violence.

Marina Ottaway details the referendum and the challenges that both the north and the south will face after the results become clear. Ottaway says while the referendum is expected to proceed relatively smoothly, the threat of violence looms large with immediate concern over the sharing of oil revenues, the yet-to-be-demarcated border, and southerners currently living in the north. The birth of a new nation could also set a precedent and have implications for the rest of Africa.

 

What is at stake in the referendum in Sudan?

Southern Sudanese—whether they are living in the south, north, or in sufficient numbers abroad—are set to vote on whether they want to secede from the north. The vote is a choice between independence and remaining part of Sudan with an arrangement similar to the one that exists today—namely, an asymmetrical federation in which the south has a degree of self-government, but also has representation in the national unity government. Northern Sudanese do not participate in the referendum.

A parallel vote was scheduled to take place in Abyei—a disputed and oil-rich area along the north-south border and abutting Darfur—but it has been suspended at this point. In theory, the preparations were not sufficiently advanced for a vote this month, but the reality is that the government in the north does not want the referendum in Abyei to take place. Abyei is a region just north of the historical boundary between the north and south, but might vote to join the new country in the south. With this in mind, there are suspicions that the north will never allow a referendum in Abyei given its cherished wealth of oil.

The people of southern Sudan will almost certainly vote to secede from the north, which will mark the beginning of a complicated process of creating a new African state.

 

What is the history of the conflict between the north and south?

There is a long history of conflict between the north and south in Sudan. It is important to keep in mind that the north and the south have different ethnic and religious makeups—the north is mainly Arab and Muslim while the south is mainly African and Christian or animist. The significant cultural, ethnic, and religious differences have complicated relations for many years.

The history of tensions goes back to the days before colonialism. The slave trade was fueled as raiders from the north took people in the south. And during the 1899-1955 period, when the Sudan was administered jointly by Egypt and the United Kingdom, the British adopted a policy of closing off the south from the rest of the country. So when Sudan gained independence in 1956 as one country, the two sides that had been isolated for a long time were suddenly thrown together without preparation. The civil war goes back to this time.

The first attempt to stop the fighting and negotiate a solution was the Addis Ababa peace agreement signed in 1972. This ended the war for ten years, but north-south relations were complicated by changes taking place in the north. Two factors led to the resumption of civil war—the growing Islamization of the north, particularly the decision of then-President Gaafar al-Nimeiry to impose sharia law, and changes made to some of the clauses of the peace accord, which caused the south to lose some of its representation in the northern government.

The conflict that ultimately killed more than an estimated 2 million people continued until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005—exactly six years ago. The CPA is actually a collection of agreements reached over a two-year period that includes a cease-fire deal and a system of power and revenue-sharing between the north and the south.

The CPA contained extensive provisions on self-government in the south, representation of the south in the national unity government, and an elaborate process of creating democratic institutions. The democratic provisions, however, never operated as they were originally designed. The elections that were supposed to take place under the new system did not happen until April 2010, and both the north and south were effectively run by single-party regimes. The north is dominated by the National Congress Party (NCP) and the south is controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebel movement turned political party.

The hope that the system agreed to in 2005 would entice the south to remain a part of Sudan was dashed by the fact that it never worked as it was supposed to. The six years scheduled between the CPA and the referendum have passed, and now the south must decide between unity and secession.

 

Is it likely that the referendum will proceed as planned? What is the expected result?

It is becoming more and more likely that the referendum will proceed as decreed in the CPA, with the exception of the vote in Abyei. Voters have been registered and there is a strong international presence on the ground. Organizations and countries behind the negotiations of the 2005 peace agreement are involved in organizing the referendum and will help the voting go forward without major setbacks.

There is an overwhelming consensus that the south will vote to secede. The question is what happens the day after the vote. The potential complications are endless, as the two sides will need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, water, official borders, citizenship, disarmament, and other security issues. If the south votes for secession and full independence is achieved six months later on July 9, 2011, the provisions of the CPA become null and void and a whole new agreement must take its place.

 

How important are the disputes over the most lucrative oil-producing areas?

The oil issue is crucial. While there is no love lost between the north and the south, oil wealth ensures the central government is unhappy about the south’s secession. Other than oil, the south is the poorest part of the country and for a northern government that wants to implement sharia law, the south is a complicating factor. In many ways, the north would like to rid itself of the south, but with a majority of the country’s oil in the south it alters Khartoum’s calculus.

The south is totally dependent on oil revenue and oil is even a significant portion of the north’s revenue. And there is a degree of mutual dependence. The south has the majority of the lucrative oil fields, but the north controls the pipelines.

The south will be forced to negotiate new deals because it will be a landlocked country. The pipeline that takes the oil out of the country to the refineries—there are no refineries in the south, they are only in the north—and port for international export run through the north. In theory, a pipeline could be built through Kenya, but this is only plausible over the long term. Even if this becomes viable economically, it is not an immediate solution.

The CPA contains detailed provisions on how oil revenue needs to be shared between the north and south. The clauses of the CPA specify how oil is supposed to be divided. It ensures that 2 percent of the oil revenue goes to the people who live in the areas immediately affected by oil production—these are the people who are typically impacted negatively as they lose their land. The rest is divided equally between the north and south. This revenue sharing needs to be renegotiated regardless of the vote outcome as the agreement expires in July.

 

How important is control over Sudan’s water?

Water is also an important issue—while it is not as immediately pressing as oil, it will be a long-term issue to watch. The Nile has two branches. The White Nile comes from Uganda and crosses southern Sudan and the Blue Nile comes from Ethiopia but does not cross the south. The junction of the White and Blue Nile is in Khartoum.

Most of the water in the Nile when it reaches Khartoum comes from the Blue Nile and its tributaries, as a great deal of the water in the White Nile evaporates in a vast swampland in the south, the Sudd. As Ethiopia develops, it will use more and more water and this will have implications for Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia has the right to use more of the water, but that would decrease the flow of water. The dredging of the Sudd—a project that was started but halted by the war—would increase water availability further north but have a negative impact on the local population.

This means that the relationship between the north and south becomes important in terms of the availability of water down the line.

 

How big of a problem is the yet-to-be-demarcated north-south border?

The boundary between the north and south will be a major source of conflict. While there is a historic boundary that basically runs along the line established by the British during colonial times, some tracts are not clearly demarcated. Furthermore, there are additional sources of possible conflict.

Many oil fields functioning at this stage lie particularly close to the border. The location makes it easy for the northern government to try to maintain control. Also, there are people living in the north along the boundary—in the Nuba Mountains, in South Kordofan, and in the southern part of the Blue Nile—who would probably prefer to be part of a new country in the south. While the fighting during the civil war was concentrated in the south, it spilled over into these regions. Finally, there are nomadic populations who routinely move between the north and south. Their need could be accommodated if the border remained a soft one, but north-south disputes might make this difficult.

The government may try to hold on to the oil fields and revenue they generate and the south may try to establish a presence in both the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile.

 

What is the threat of violence? Could another civil war break out or will people be displaced?

Violence unfortunately remains a possibility, but it would not necessarily be a return to civil war. Despite calls for demobilization, disarmament, and the reintegration of combatants in the 2005 peace agreement, both sides are well armed and could restart fighting.

The most immediate danger is that of violence against the southern Sudanese in the north, particularly Khartoum. There are already a large number of people returning to the south out of fear of violence after the referendum.

After the referendum, there is the danger that Khartoum is going to tell southerners in the north to go home—this would be a tremendous burden on the south. And regardless of what the government says, the northern population might turn against and attack southerners. Unfortunately, just as we saw in the Balkans, the partition of a country can lead to ethnic cleansing and disorderly repatriation.

 

What role is the international community playing? Will the referendum alter Sudan’s international standing?

The countries and organizations that were involved in the negotiations of the CPA—particularly the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European states—are convinced that the south will secede and are preparing to provide assistance to a new country in the south. These players will continue to play a positive role and mediate talks on the sharing of oil revenue.

The United States has reportedly said that it will remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism if the peace agreement is honored, but the ability for Washington to offer carrots to Khartoum is somewhat limited by the International Criminal Court’s charges against President Omar al-Bashir for atrocities committed in Darfur. Also, President Bashir will likely play the Islamist card after the referendum, which is not something Washington would like to see.

It is unclear how all of Sudan’s neighbors will react. While some Arab countries, like Qatar, have tried to play a mediating role, most Arab countries are not going to be happy with the separation of a member country of the Arab League.

There is the possibility of greater tension created by neighboring countries. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda will welcome the new state in the south as a new African country and establish close ties to Juba (the capital of the south). Egypt will remain an important player in Khartoum. It is also possible that Israel will support the south in the same way it has always embraced non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Arab world.

 

If the south chooses to secede, what challenges will the new country face? Will the new state be perilously weak?

The south is going to have a hard time establishing sufficient sources of revenue to run the government, particularly if the two sides do not reach a deal on sharing oil revenues. At this point, the south is totally reliant on oil—which means it is also dependent on the pipelines that run through the north—and saddled with poor infrastructure. Paved roads are few and far between outside of Juba.

Optimists say that the south enjoys great potential and will benefit from additional international investment—Juba is already booming with new construction. While Juba will certainly blossom with donor aid that provides new employment opportunities, this will not be true everywhere. The south may also need to accommodate the influx of southerners currently living in the north and will lose the revenue generated by remittances coming from these workers. And if war breaks out, the south will need to spend its meager budget on the military.

There is hope on the horizon as the south is discovering oil further south of the border, but there is still no infrastructure to offer a fast solution. It will be an extremely difficult economic beginning for the south.

 

How will the result impact the rest of Sudan? Will this influence the situation in Darfur?

It is important to keep in mind that if the south secedes there will be not one but two new countries after the referendum—the north will be a different country. The north is likely to immediately implement sharia law and will assert its Islamic identity with renewed vigor.

One of the attempts to achieve unity across Sudan outlined a system where sharia law would only apply to Muslims, but this compromise will no longer be on the table when the south secedes. The tougher use of sharia law will increase the likelihood of an exodus of the southern Sudanese who are living in the north today.

North Sudan will likely move closer to Egypt, possibly Libya, and the wider Arab world. Egypt has always considered Sudan its hinterland, as the water of the Nile flows through its southern neighbor, so Egypt will take an active role in what happens in the north. After the split in Sudan, Cairo will undoubtedly look to tighten relations with Khartoum.

What happens between the north and south will also have repercussions in Darfur. Since 2003, thousands of people have been killed in the violence in Darfur, the western area of the north, and millions more displaced. Even with an uneasy ceasefire signed by some of the movements—but not by all—war continues. The breakaway of the south will likely lead to renewed tensions in Darfur.

 

What is the significance of the vote?

The referendum is significant because it is the end of the attempts to engineer a system that could accommodate the north and south. The CPA was designed to make it possible for the two parts of the country to coexist. A vote for secession means that the CPA failed.

It is also recognition by the international community—historically adverse to dividing countries—that there is no other solution. It sets a precedent and may have implications for other divided African countries, including Nigeria and Congo (not to mention Darfur). Since the end of colonialism Eritrea has been the only country to secede in Africa, but this took place as a result of war—essentially Eritrea was able to defeat Ethiopia militarily. The inevitable independence of the south will be Africa’s first secession through referendum and hopefully through peaceful means.