By Hugo Odiogor
(HN, January 9, 2011) - A 55-year quest for freedom in southern Sudan makes a crucial home run today when over four million voters step out to cast their vote either to remain with their Arab and Muslim brothers or to become an independent state. The stakes are high for both sides and for Africa as a whole.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan El-Bashir pledged last week to abide by the result of today’s referendum, thereby dousing fears of a possible return to the trenches, in the event of southern voting to end its 113-year association with the Arab north.
El-Bashir, facing indictment in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, made what could be his last visit to the South as a united country last week and gave the world the assurance the north will not resort to violence to thwart the decision of the south. The vote is the result of a 2005 peace deal, which ended a 55-year conflict that has claimed the lives of two million people and left twice as many displaced.
El-Bashir held talks with southern Sudanese leader, Sylva Kiir, on issues bordering on citizenship rights, resource control, border demarcations, and the fate of the oil-rich Abyei, which is supposed to vote later on whether it should become part of the north or to join the south. Today’s referendum is part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended one of Africa’s longest-running civil war. In the north, the ruling National Congress Party, led by Omar El-Bashir, is campaigning for unity while the former rebels under SPLM decided “to campaign for what the people want.”
Before the closure for registration last week, at least 3.4 million people in Sudan have registered to vote while Sudanese in Diaspora are also allowed to vote. Reports said aid agencies have been assisting to educate the illiterate rural population on how they will choose between two images on the ballot paper.
One of them is that of clasped hands symbolising “ unity.” The second symbol is a “single hand”, signalling separation from Khartoum. The vote for separation has united the diverse southern communities who are often divided along ethnic lines. There have been pro-separation rallies as the people look forward to end centuries of slavery and abuse at the hands of the Arabs in the north.
Sudan is located in the north-eastern part of Africa. It is the 10th largest country by land mass, combining the size of France, Britain, Germany and Belgium, put together. It is bordered by Egypt to the north, the Red Sea, to the northeast, Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, Kenya and Uganda to the southeast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central Africa Republic to the southwest, Chad to the west and Libya to the northwest. The River Nile, world’s longest river, divides the country on the east and west.
Khartoum is the political, cultural and commercial capital of the nation, while Omdurman remains the largest city. Its population of 42 million people, Arab and Nubian origins who are Sunnis and the Dinkas and other diverse groups in the South.
Islam is the official and largest religion, while Arabic and English are the official languages. The pro-Islamic policies of the government led to a second civil war in 1983, followed by a bloodless coup d’etat in 1989. Under the dictatorial leadership of El-Bashir, Sudan has initiated a series of macroeconomic reforms which resulted in its economy being rated amongst the fastest growing in the world. Sudan is rich in natural resources including petroleum, with China and Japan as its main partners.
The British began the process of divide and rule in 1922, when the northerners were not allowed to travel over the 10th parallel south and southerners travel over the 8th north. This ensured that Muslims were stopped from spreading their faith southwards while the British supported the influx of Christian missionaries to the south. This was the basis for the dichotomy that existed till date.
The two cultures were never given a proper opportunity to interact, in the 55 years of the country’s independence. The north imposed its dominance by force and attempted to impose Sharia on southern Christians where illiteracy is almost 100 per cent; poverty is rife, healthcare is non-existent and starvation a frequent blight.
Flashpoints of conflict
Separatist movements in regions such as Darfur and the Nuba Mountains and border areas are watching the development in the vote today; in the same way other African and Arab countries are watching the development in Sudan.
‘Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought civil war to an end, two referenda were agreed: one for southern secession or unity and the other to give Abyei the opportunity to choose to be part of the north or the south.
Sudan has achieved great economic growth by implementing macroeconomic reforms and finally ended the civil war by adopting a new constitution in 2005 with rebel groups in the south, granting them limited autonomy to be followed by a referendum about independence in 2011.
The discovery of oil in the southern part of Sudan has been one of the problems of the country. It produces 500,000 barrels every day. Eighty per cent of the oil is in the south, while the pipeline runs to the north. It accounts for 70 per cent of government revenue and 93 per cent of its exports. South produces vast majority of oil, but north has means of processing.
El-Basir is proposing a wealth-sharing deal that splits oil profits 50-50 between north and south Sudan. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), runs the largest oil-extraction operation in the country. China has been roundly condemned for closing its eyes to human rights violations in Sudan because of the oil diplomacy. Its company has been accused of false declaration of oil production figures which puts the south in disadvantage. In the five years of peace, the north has shared $10 billion in oil revenue with south.
The suspicion that the north was hiding oil revenue almost derailed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, three years ago. Bashir’s National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army must negotiate a new oil revenue-sharing agreement, and a “credible, independent” company must conduct a detailed audit of the country’s oil industry and release its findings in full to the public.
Observers believe that the ICC indictment of El-Bashir has put him under tremendous pressure and he is not in the mood to fight any more, but the UN, and some anti-genocide groups have set up Satellite Sentinel Project, along the border areas to monitor movement of persons and troops.
The surveillance project is to prevent a new civil war in the event that the south votes for secession in the referendum. “We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes to know that we’re watching, the world is watching,” they said. “War criminals thrive in the dark. It’s a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight.”
Today’s referendum is important for the people of Sudan and the world as it may see the birth of a new nation in Africa and the world.
This article originally appeared in the Vanguard Newspaper in Nigeria