The anticipation is palpable as the Referendum in Sudan draws near. This Sunday, millions of Sudanese will take to the polls for this monumental vote. Residents of Africa’s largest country have already begun traveling to voting centers in order to make their voices heard. Hundreds of international observers are in place, the ballots are en route, and journalists from around the world are on the ground to document the event. Among the crowds of observers will be former US President Jimmy Carter and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, both on location as a part of the Carter Center’s delegation. With 2.8 million citizens already registered to vote, it is sure to be a big day for Sudan; a day most likely resulting in the creation of the world’s 193rd country. Gaining its independence from British rule in 1956, Sudan itself has only recently become an autonomous state.
For those familiar with the region, its likely split does not come as a surprise. Historically, the region has been quite volatile; dealing with persistent violence, campaigns of Arabization and Islamification, and a deep involvement in the African slave trade, not to mention the recent genocide in Darfur. Furthermore, Sudan’s location on the border between the Middle East and Africa has contributed to its inability to reconcile the ongoing tensions between its Arab and non-Arab factions. As a result, the country continues to struggle to define itself, floundering in the midst of what might best be described as an identity crisis. According to Francis Deng, UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, the country struggles to reconcile its various racial, ethnic, cultural and religious identities. This desire for a unified identity has been a major contributing factor to the many violent outbreaks in the country, as well as the strong desire of the South to secede from the North.
Sunday’s referendum was and is an integral part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was signed in 2005 between the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This agreement brought an end to the civil war that had been raging since 1983. This long and violent conflict resulted in the deaths of over 2 million Sudanese. Today, the country continues to work toward actual enforcement of the CPA, with violence remaining throughout the region. This secession vote is a huge step in the country’s journey toward peace. Its attachment to the CPA, the document which brought an end to the most recent civil war, is among the many reasons citizens of Sudan and the international community alike are concerned about an eruption of violence surrounding the referendum.
While optimism has been running high in recent days, there is still great concern over the backlash of a pro-secession vote. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was in Juba this week, the capital of Southern Sudan, on a “goodwill tour” of sorts. Though many, including myself, have their doubts as to how genuine his intentions are, the sitting president announced that he will support secession should the people vote for it. This comes after much wavering over the last year as to whether he will recognize or denounce southern independence. Many still fear, and with good cause, that Bashir will not be so willing to let go of the South and all of its oil. This promise of goodwill, coming from a man wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, does not hold a lot of water. For now, there is an excited energy in the air. Between peace deals being brokered, last minute voter preparations, warplanes flying over Kutum, and kidnappings and violence in border towns such as Abyei, this is definitely a significant moment in the country’s history. Hopefully, it can be written in the history books as a momentous achievement; not a tragedy.
With George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinal project in place, the world is literally watching this historic event unfold. We are watching the creation of a new country, and hopefully the peaceful outcome of this long-awaited referendum. Though there is much to consider in the wake of this vote, for now, all eyes are focused on Sunday.
We wait, we watch, we hope.Sudan, Darfur