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The referendum in South Sudan: Miracle or mirage?

Posted by Georges Tsaï on 13 January 2011

Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, several hundred Chinese (even thousands?), and … George Clooney decided to start the new year in South Sudan, a region that is not known for its tourist appeal.

They were there for a good cause: to ensure the referendum on the independence of South Sudan would take place smoothly. The referendum is the result of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended one of the deadliest conflicts within the past 50 years.

Ominous farce or virtuous ending?

The referendum, which began Sunday and ends next Sunday, embodies great hopes for a peaceful and lasting resolution to a conflict that has pitted northern Sudan against southern Sudan for nearly 40 years.

A brief overview of notable highlights:

• In 1955 (even before Sudan’s independence, proclaimed in 1956) the first civil war broke out between the mainly Muslim North and the South, home to a predominantly animist and Christian population. This war, which lasted until 1972, resulted in 500,000 dead and involuntarily displaced one million refugees.

Between 1972 and 1983, through the mediation of Emperor Haile Selassie, Sudan experienced a period of relative peace.

• 1978: the Chevron company discovered oil deposits in the South.

The civil war resumed in 1983. This second conflict, which would cost two million lives and involuntary displace four million refugees, would cease in 2005, following the signing of the CPA, which established a federal system and which provided, amongst other things, for a referendum on the independence of South Sudan to be held before the end of January 2011.

January 9, 2011: quashing the pessimistic predictions of many observers, the referendum is unfolding in a relative calm. There is apparently no improper management of the referendum process.

Ominous farce that will end badly or virtuous ending to one of the bloodiest conflicts of the second half of the 20th century? The question remains to be answered. Let us try to analyze the chances of success and risks of failure of this undertaking.

Morality and realpolitik

Let us start with the factors that could justify a certain optimism. First, the international community’s driving forces appear to be truly mobilized. Since the signing of the CPA, the United States has played a significant role to ensure the agreement is effectively implemented. George W. Bush had worked hard so that Washington would work in this vein. The fact that several Christian movements support the independence of the South certainly influenced his interest in the issue. More generally, the international community has not fully recovered from its inaction in Rwanda and is still suffering from a guilty conscience. It is therefore determined to avoid another humanitarian tragedy, for truly moral reasons.

Then there is a good dose of realpolitik prompting many players to want a happy ending. Oil, of course, plays an important role and requires a collaborative approach between the South, with most of the country’s oil fields, and the North, with the infrastructures capable of transporting and exporting the precious liquid. As for President Omar el-Bashir, he has all of a sudden turned into an informed statesman, concerned about respecting the will of the people of the South. The sanctions imposed on Sudan and the arrest warrant issued by the ICC against the President have perhaps something to do with this remarkable conversion. It is a safe bet that his visit to Juba a few days before the referendum, to make a speech worthy of a confirmed democrat, was not a wholly gratuitous act.

Continuing threats

There is still much to do and what started so well last Sunday could easily turn into a nightmare. In particular, there are three vulnerable factors that both North and South Sudanese, as well as the international community should watch closely:

1. First, the results of the referendum. To be accepted by all, three conditions are required: voting that is free of manipulation and violence, a high percentage of votes in favor of either option, and a substantial turnout. The last is expected to far exceed the 60% threshold set by al-Bashir as the absolute minimum to validate Referendum results. Regarding the percentage of “yes” votes, the more the better. For example, Slovenia in 1990, Croatia in 1991, and Eritrea in 1993, achieved independence with respectively 95%, 93%, and 99.8% of favorable votes. However, a result resembling that of Quebec: a small margin between the “yes” and “no” would create a difficult situation that could be potentially explosive. Sixty percent of the votes seems to be a minimum to justify the dismantling of an existing country.

2. Then, there is the question of the border between North and South. This must be determined accurately. The task has been made even more vital due to the presence of rich oil deposits in the border region. This issue, if not properly handled, could soon be the source of renewed violent conflict. The well-known case of the disputed border between the two Koreas and the much less known border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica illustrate, if necessary, the importance of this issue.

3. Finally, the exact terms of the economic cooperation between the two countries, particularly in terms of sharing oil revenues, will greatly influence how the situation will play out. This will be further aggravated by the addition of the virtually inextricable issues of the Abyei region. This northern enclave also has a referendum pending to decide whether it will finally be tied to the North or the South. The region, though small, also contains rich oil deposits. Complications related to the question of who would be entitled to vote led to an indefinite postponement of the referendum. This means that the North and South will need to undertake delicate negotiations to decide the fate of this region.

South Sudan, a state on borrowed time?

The world (or at least a handful of observers) is holding its breath. Those who designed and signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement have shown wisdom, vision, and courage. Will their gamble pay off? Or will the new country be yet another state on borrowed time? One can only hope that South Sudan succeeds and the CPA, an admirable document, will be used as a model for resolving ethnic, religious and linguistic conflicts that continue to be formidable challenges.

A situation to watch for in the weeks, months and years ahead.

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