Sudan has a history of protracted conflict between the predominately Muslim north and the largely Christian south. On 9-15 January 2011, the citizens of Southern Sudan took part in a referendum to determine if they wish to become an independent state. Although South Sudan has been an autonomous region since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, the result of this referendum could end up splitting Africa's largest country into two separate states and have impacts that transcend the region.
Essentially the Southern Sudanese people didn’t want to be governed by a Northern Muslim state whom they worried wouldn’t put their interests first. What proceeded was a civil war from 1955-1972. While a brief peace was agreed, the majority of South Sudanese continued to feel the northern government failed to adequately consider their rights and many in the South continued to oppose the national Sharia Law. In 1983 a second civil war broke out. In 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, between the President Omar al-Bashir’s government and the southern secular Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to bring an end to the two decade civil war between the North and South of Sudan in which more than two million people died.
The CPA included the provision for the South to carry out a referendum on whether it wanted to secede from the north. According to the terms of the CPA, the central government of Sudan and the South Sudanese government agreed that the turnout of at least 60% of 3.8 million voters would be necessary to validate the referendum.
In this case, a simple majority vote in favour of independence will result in secession for South Sudan. According to the SPLM the 60% threshold has already been achieved. President Omar al-Bashir has said he will accept the result of the vote.
Southern Sudan's referendum is only the next step in the process which may bring about the creation of a new state. There are a number of practical issues that would need to be resolved. Prior to the referendum, the CPA had made provisions to negotiate a number of issues that would be important post-referendum. However in the period leading up to the referendum, it became apparent that a number of these issues would remain unresolved before the referendum date. Rather than continually delaying the referendum, and so testing the shaky peace, the referendum was pushed through despite key issues not being addressed.
One of the issues included debt sharing; the Sudanese government currently has a nearly $38 billion sovereign debt. According to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir offered to take on all of the country's debt if the south declares independence after a referendum.
According to One International more unresolved matters will be extremely important if the South, as expected, chooses to secede from the North:
1. Border demarcation, specifically the Abyei region. Even in Sudan’s colonial times when the British governed the north and south as two separate states, the North-South border has never been clearly defined. Seemingly without consideration the border region dissects water basins, differing tribal areas and even oil reserves . For nomads who migrate between north and south depending on their farming patterns, the refusal of President Omar al-Bashir to offer dual citizenship means any border demarcation could become seriously contentious. Especially if any border enforcement seriously disrupts the nomad’s normal livelihood patterns. One area of particular contention along the border is the oil rich Abyei region in the centre of the country. Both the North and South perceive the area as part of their respective districts.
2. Oil revenue sharing: Two of Sudan’s largest oil fields straddle the North-South border. Although current CPA agreements split tax revenues from the oil and gas exploitation 50:50, it is not clear if this arrangement will continue. These oil and gas revenues are critically important to both countries. Currently 98% of government revenue in the South, and 50% of the Northern government revenue, is derived from this oil’s taxation revenues. More than two thirds of the oil fields are located south of the North-South border, to some this may initially suggest that Southern Sudan has more rights over the oil as more of it will be located in their country, but in reality the issue is more complicated than that. This issue is further complicated by the fact that Northern Sudan holds the vast majority of infrastructure which is needed to export the oil from South Sudan. If the South wishes to continue to receive oil and gas tax revenues, they will remain dependent upon the North. This is an important reason why the North and the South need to maintain peaceful relations. Both will want to continue receiving the financial revenues from the oil extraction.
As said, important and complicated issues to be discussed and solved. First, we will have to await the definite outcome of the referendum, to be announced on 7 February 2011. According to a website published by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, 99% of the southerners have opted for independence from the north.