Independence for South Sudan to present challenges

THE dateline here says “Sudan”, but in a few weeks it will likely read “South Sudan” or “Cushitia” or “Azania”.

These are being touted as possible names for the what will be world’s newest country, with four million voters in southern Sudan likely to vote to secede from Africa’s largest state.

Just before 8am, I spoke to Charles Juma-Seyis at the end of a 500 yard queue at Konyo-Konyo voting station in Juba, the usually low-key and ramshackle would-be capital. “I don’t mind waiting to vote, we have been waiting more than 50 years for this day”, he said.

Since independence from Great Britain in 1956 Sudan has seen only 11 years of peace. A landmark 2005 peace deal brokered by the United States saw southern Sudan gain autonomy within Sudan, with the option to vote on independence after a six-year interim period. That agreement came after 20 years of war that left two million dead and four to five million more as refugees. Now the plebiscite is going ahead.

Addressing the congregation at St Teresa’s Cathedral in Juba yesterday , southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a former guerilla, asked people to vote “in a peaceful and orderly manner”.

Kiir, dispensing with his trademark wide-brimmed hat inside the church, said the vote marks “only the first step on a new journey”, and acknowledged that the would-be new country faces massive challenges if it is to succeed. “People need to understand we have to work, we cannot depend on hand-outs”, he told the congregation, fanning themselves in the 33 degree heat.

Voting will take place until January 15, but a result is not expected until mid-February. The drawn-out process is down to the vast, inhospitable terrain of the region, and alludes to the challenges to new state will face, if and when it comes into being. There is little more than 100km of paved road in an area roughly the size of France, which includes a vast, impassable swamp known as the Sudd: 90% of people live on less than €1 per day, 85% of the population is illiterate; and almost half the people receive some form of international humanitarian assistance. A recently-established anti-corruption commission has more than 1,000 complaints on its desk, but as yet no charges have been filed.

Kiir was joined at the Mass by US senator John Kerry, who has taken on a quasi-official Sudan envoy status in the Obama administration. Sen Kerry earlier hinted President Obama would look at the possibility of dropping US sanctions on Khartoum, if it respected the vote in the south and did not attempt to sabotage the outcome.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, western Sudan. He visited Juba last week, and pledged to stick by the result, but only if the poll passed peacefully and without contention. He later told al-Jazeera an independent southern Sudan would likely be “a failed state”.

Khartoum has become a boom city, funded by billions in oil revenues. However, 80% of the country’s oil is in the south, and this could be lost to Khartoum, if the south secedes. The border has not been formally demarcated, and there are disagreements over territory elsewhere. However, the south must pipe the oil through the north for processing and exporting, so some form mutual dependence seems likely. However formal agreements and long-term stability could be hard to reach.

On the eve of voting, nine people were killed in shoot-outs near the north-south border. The fighting was between the southern Sudan army — which before 2005 was a rebel movement known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — and local militias thought be armed and sponsored by Khartoum. In areas close to the border, cattle-herders and farmers often fight over land and animals, and these local rivalries are said to be manipulated by political elites elsewhere.

Salva Kiir told the congregation, which was dotted with foreign press, that the captured assailants would be paraded in front the media, and that they would “explain who armed them and what their motivation was”. Again, though not referring to the Khartoum Government by name, Kiir said that “we will work to overcome our adversaries”.

First, however, the voting must continue. People in rural, isolated areas will have to walk for hours, sometimes days just to vote, while ballot papers will have to be airlifted back to Juba for counting.

The ballot paper features two symbols, a clasped hand for unity, or a single hand for independence. Billboards around Juba made no pretence of asking people to choose: a single hand, side by side with thumb-print, reminded all that for most southern Sudanese, there is only one option. Independence.

* Simon Roughneen is a freelance Irish foreign correspondent. www.simonroughneen,com

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