Southern Sudan's Referendum

The people of Southern Sudan are on the verge of making a momentous decision about the future of their country. They will vote in a referendum, beginning on January 9, on whether to remain united with the North or secede from Sudan and form an independent state. Almost 4 million southerners have registered to take part. Voting will take place over the course of a week at centers located in the North, the South, and eight other countries including the United States. The logistical challenges of mounting such a complex process in one of the world’s least-developed regions means the outcome of the vote may not be known until late January. For the vote to be legitimate, 60 percent of registered voters must take part. A simple majority in favor of secession will be enough to set the South on the path to independence on July 9. A separate referendum in which voters in the border enclave of Abyei were due to decide whether to remain part of the North or join the South has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements about who should be eligible to vote.

Q1: Does the voter registration tally tell us anything about which way the vote is likely to go?

Possibly. During the run-up to the referendum, the ruling party in the South, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), has been concerned about the voting intentions of the large numbers of southerners who live outside the South. There was particular anxiety about the estimated 1.5 to 2 million southerners living in the North of Sudan. Would they be intimidated by northerners into voting for unity? Or, the big unspoken fear: would they in fact prefer unity over secession? There was a big push to encourage southerners to “come home to choose.” This campaign appears to have paid off. There has been a steady stream of non-domiciled southerners back to the South. Of the nearly 4 million who have registered to vote in the referendum, only 4.5 percent registered outside the South: 115,000 in the North and 60,000 outside the country. SPLM officials will be confident that with the overwhelming majority of the electorate voting under their noses, they will be able to mobilize a resounding vote in favor of secession.

Q2: Is President Omar al-Bashir resigned to losing the South?

Public statements would seem to suggest so. After a long period of burying his head in the sand and refusing to admit that southerners could possibly aspire to be independent, Sudan’s president has belatedly acknowledged that sentiment in the South is overwhelmingly in favor of secession. President Bashir traveled to the southern capital of Juba on January 4, and there was an air of resignation about his message. He told officials that “The preferred choice for us is unity but in the end we will respect the choice of the southern citizens. One would be sad that Sudan has split but also pleased because we witnessed peace.” He said Khartoum would be ready to assist the South if it chose independence.

Statements such as these should be treated with considerable skepticism. First of all, political leaders in Sudan are noted for their ability to say one thing and do another and for the rhetorical shifts from day to day, particularly during times of crisis. Second, President Bashir is in political survival mode, trying to decide how best to ride out the coming storm and seeking to appeal to multiple and conflicting audiences, at home and abroad. His conciliatory remarks toward the South appear to be a sop to the international community, which is demanding that he preside over a smooth referendum and respect the outcome of the vote. But ultimately, the president’s calculations will be determined by pressures from inside, rather than outside. Bashir’s personal reputation will take a severe hit domestically if the South goes its own way, and he could be vulnerable to internal challenges. A perceived failure to put up a fight and prevent the loss of the South is unlikely to play well with his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), or the opposition parties, which are determined to pin the blame squarely on his shoulders. So while the message toward the South is placatory right now, it is liable to change in an instant if Bashir feels his own position to be under imminent threat. For the moment, he appears to be carrying the party with him, but the NCP is not a monolithic entity and potential rivals from both the “hard line” and “moderate” camps will be evaluating their positions. The situation is fluid and political realignments are possible in the coming weeks.

Q3: If southerners vote for secession what will happen next?

The referendum is an historic moment for the people of Southern Sudan, but what happens in the six-month interim period that follows will be equally crucial. This is the time when the really tough negotiations will take place between the NCP and SPLM on a host of issues that will determine relations between North and South for years to come: how to share Sudan’s oil revenues, demarcate the border, protect cross-border migration, define citizenship, divide assets and liabilities, set security arrangements, and decide on a currency. At the same time, the status of Abyei must be resolved if violence is to be averted on the border. So far, neither side has shown much willingness to get down to business, preferring instead to rely on the blind faith characteristic of the Sudanese political elite that a deal can be struck at the 11th hour. Given the high stakes involved, this is a particularly risky strategy.

While indications suggest that the NCP may be coming round to the idea that the South is lost, it reserves the right to dictate the terms of the separation. As one senior U.S. negotiator puts it, whether the NCP will play “nice, or nasty” is still an open question. In terms of negotiation priorities, Khartoum will be desperate to hold on to a chunk of the country’s oil revenue, even though about 80 percent of the petroleum lies in the South. The fact that the South will remain dependent on the North’s oil infrastructure gives it some leverage in the negotiations. The NCP will also be keen to offload some of Sudan’s $35 billion of national debt onto the southern government in Juba. Abyei plays a critical role in its negotiation strategy, and the NCP appears determined to use the region as a bargaining chip. The SPLM has accused the NCP of holding the people of Abyei “hostage” but has suggested that it may be willing to pay a “ransom” to set them free from the North. Whether the people of Abyei accept this characterization of the situation is another matter entirely; of the two groups that claim residency in the region, one favors the North, the other the South.

Q4: How effective has U.S. policy been toward Sudan?

After months spent arguing about how best to influence Khartoum, the Obama administration eventually tilted toward an engagement approach that includes incentives for good behavior as well as “consequences,” as yet undisclosed, if the government obstructs the referendum process. Since then it has sought to make up for lost time, plowing diplomatic resources into getting the referendum process on track and matching those efforts with a scaling up of development activity in the South. A senior diplomat was chosen to bolster U.S. input in the North-South negotiation process, and a special envoy was appointed to work full time on ending the conflict in Darfur. All of this is in addition to the ongoing efforts of the special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration. President Obama has gotten personally involved, addressing a special session on Sudan at the United Nations. According to White House officials, he is receiving daily briefings on the situation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state Colin Powell, and former senator John Danforth, whose efforts helped pave the way for the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South, will travel to Juba as the referendum begins. The overall sense of purpose has been impressive, and there is now a sense of quiet optimism that the referendum can go ahead on time and deliver a result that reflects the will of the people of Southern Sudan.

Even if the referendum goes smoothly, however, there will scarcely be time for U.S. policymakers to give themselves a congratulatory pat on the back. Looking ahead, the challenges for U.S. policymakers become even more acute. Managing relations with what is likely to be an independent but weak South Sudan and an embittered and unstable North will require skillful diplomacy. With the fanfare of the referendum over, the North may seek to stall on negotiating big ticket items that potentially weaken the regime’s position in the North, and the South may feel that it is in a position of strength, increasingly reluctant to compromise. And international attention, patience, and persistence may flag as other crises draw attention.

In the longer term, the South will remain highly dependent on the United States for economic and diplomatic support, but the SPLM is liable to resist friendly but necessary pressure to open up political space, improve standards of governance, and curb corruption.

In the North, the U.S. administration has adopted the right track by trying to assure Khartoum that it has an interest in a prosperous and peaceful Sudan in the North as well as the South. Reaching out to Khartoum rather than seeking to isolate it is unlikely to please domestic opinion in the United States given the appalling reputation of the Bashir regime. But it is the best way of promoting peace in the region. The roadmap the administration has announced for normalizing relations with the North contains real incentives; they include taking Sudan off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, exchanging ambassadors with Khartoum, facilitating negotiations on debt relief, and ending economic sanctions. The last two incentives are the juicy ones. But President Obama does not have the power to deliver them alone; they are reliant on congressional approval. Congress remains strongly influenced by the Sudan advocacy groups and human rights lobby and has tended to take a tough line against Khartoum. It will be hard to persuade them to deliver any concessions while Bashir, who stands accused of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court, remains in office. Khartoum knows this and has little faith in the United States’ capacity to deliver on its promises. This absence of trust could fatally undermine efforts to engage in any meaningful way with Sudan in the post-referendum period.

Richard Downie is deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions
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Richard Downie