In a week and a half, Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on whether to seek independence from the north. Tensions between the two regions have been high for decades, with two bloody civil wars lasting a total of 39 years since 1955, the second of which ended in 2005 with mediation from the United States. Among the terms of the peace agreement signed in Nairobi on January 9 of that year was for a referendum for southern independence to be held 6 years after the signing. In the mean time, the south would have a degree of autonomy.
That agreement has worked fairly well for those 6 years, with human rights activists turning their attention away from Southern Sudan and toward Darfur, the large northwestern region of Sudan where fighting between rebels and government-backed militias has killed 300,000 civilians and produced millions of refugees. The prospect of independence is already making Darfur activists nervous.
However, as January 9 approaches, attention will once again be fixed on the south, where the integrity of the vote and the north’s willingness to honor it will be major issues. Sudan’s major industry is oil production, which will be a major issue if Southern Sudan votes for independence. 85% of Sudan’s oil reserves lie in the south, but the pipelines run through the north as Southern Sudan is entirely landlocked. If the referendum does not re-ignite the civil war that’s been raging in Sudan for the past few decades, then this will be a major issue of contention in separation negotiations.
Beyond the resource squabbles lies the source of the dividing line in Sudan: ethnic conflict. Sudan’s north consists mainly of Arab Muslims while the south consists mostly of Nilotic peoples that are mostly animist with a significant Christian minority. The spark that ignited Sudan’s second civil war was the imposition of Shariʿa law from Khartoum. Thought there isn’t much good information available from the ground in Juba, it is widely believed in the West that a fair referendum would favor independence.
For now, the anticipation will build and this story will grow in its media footprint, but the real action will start after the referendum is complete.