Benedicte Desrus/Reuters/Landov

Separation anxieties

Sudan | As South Sudan prepares for a January vote on independence from Khartoum, concerns over region-wide violence grow

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

For a burgeoning majority of South Sudanese citizens, voting by ballot in a January referendum for independence is complicated: An estimated 75 percent of South Sudanese can't read.

So the momentous question of whether South Sudan will secede from the rest of the country and form its own nation comes down to a pair of symbols printed on paper ballots: An image of two clasped hands means a vote for unity with the North. A single open hand means a vote for separation. Most predict that South Sudan will secede by a landslide.

A vote for secession would bring questions both harrowing and hopeful. First, the harrowing: Would the brutal northern regime release the South and its coveted oil reserves without a fight? How would the two regions settle a still-disputed border?

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Next, the hopeful: Could southern independence foster much-needed development in a land rich with natural resources? And what could peaceful secession mean for scores of churches in the predominantly Christian southern region if freed from ties with the Islamic north?

One thing is clear: For good or ill, what happens in Sudan in 2011 will have a dramatic impact on the largest nation in Africa and the sprawling region that surrounds it. Like many other beginnings, the birth of a nation is full of pain and promise.

Southern secession would be a dramatic climax to decades of suffering. More than 20 years of civil war with a northern government seeking to capture the South's vast natural resources and impose Islamic law on the largely Christian region took a brutal toll: Some 2 million Sudanese died in scorched-earth campaigns led by President Omar al-Bashir. Another 4 million fled their homes.

A 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the North-South fighting and opened the way for southerners to return to the region, but southerners say the North has failed to keep key provisions of the treaty, including giving them a fair share of oil revenue. They also accuse the North of backtracking on promises to abide by North-South borderlines determined by The Hague.

By December, South Sudan's ruling party said it would endorse a vote for independence, echoing the sentiment of most southerners. Anne Itto, deputy secretary of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, explained that the North had made unity "very, very, very unattractive."

The South's secession may be equally unattractive to the North. The southern region contains 80 percent of the country's oil reserves. The North has long piped the oil to refineries in northern regions to export from the Port of Sudan for huge profits. Though the two regions have said they will reach an agreement that would allow the South to continue to use the pipeline, and allow the North to benefit from the oil, the Khartoum-based government in the North may be unwilling to lose control of oil-rich territory to an independent nation.

The disputed Abyei region along the North-South border may be the most explosive example. Northern forces torched much of the area inhabited by southerners in 2008. Residents of the region were scheduled to vote on a referendum in January to determine whether the region would belong to the North or South, but the northern government has mired the process, making a January vote impossible.

Even if southerners choose to secede in January, the question of Abyei will remain and could lead to fresh fighting, or even a return to the kind of war that ravaged the South for decades. Such a war would be devastating to Sudanese in the North and South and could ensnare many of the nine nations bordering Sudan.

With little time left before the referendum, other contentious issues remained unresolved. For example, would southerners living in the North become northern citizens? How would each region guarantee the safety of citizens from the other side? What would be the final arrangements on sharing oil resources?

U.S. officials publicly pressed Sudan to settle such issues, but much of the pressure came late. In November U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., traveled to Khartoum with a surprising message from the Obama administration: The United States would consider removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror as early as 2011 if Khartoum allows the southern referendum to proceed peacefully.

Even more surprising: Despite reports of fresh violence in the country's western region of Darfur, the United States wouldn't consider Darfur when making a decision about Sudan's spot on the terror list. Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves calls that proposal "a very dangerous precedent and encourages Khartoum to believe that there are more concessions to be had."


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