Sudan's 2011 Referendum: The Main Challenges

The people of southern Sudan are fast approaching an historic decision: a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or become an independent state. The referendum is the most significant milestone in a six-year interim period that began with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. The CPA was the outcome of a U.S.-backed process that successfully brought an end to almost 40 years of civil war between the North and South. In theory, two votes are scheduled to take place on January 9, 2011. In the larger of the two, southern Sudanese will vote on whether they wish to secede from the North and form an independent country in the South. At the same time, a separate vote is slated to take place in the border enclave of Abyei, where people face the choice of remaining in the North or joining the South. While preparations for the main referendum are roughly on track in spite of serious logistical challenges, the process in Abyei is beset by political obstacles, and the United States has publicly acknowledged that a referendum will not happen on January 9. CSIS Africa Program staff Richard Downie and Brian Kennedy offer this assessment of the main issues, based on a visit to Sudan’s northern and southern capitals, Khartoum and Juba, in October.

The Southern Referendum

Intense efforts are under way in the South to ensure that the referendum takes place on time and is conducted in a way that fairly represents the will of the people. The vote will be open to those who can prove they are southern Sudanese or have family links to the South. This includes many southerners who live in the North. The governing party in the South, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), is watching this constituency carefully, concerned about their voting intentions and fearful that they might be intimidated by the North. Nonetheless, all the indications suggest that a free vote would result in a resounding decision in favor of independence. For southerners, the referendum is the culmination of many decades of struggle against northern oppression, on political, racial, ethnic, and religious grounds—a struggle that has cost more than 2 million lives. Now that the prize is within reach, any perceived attempt by the North to snatch it away will be viewed as a declaration of war.

The process of organizing the main referendum remains on track, but only just. The logistical challenges are formidable, and any small hiccup could set the plans off course. Southern Sudan is one of the most undeveloped regions of the world. Roughly the size of France, it has just a few miles of paved road. An estimated 85 percent of the population is illiterate, and voter education is minimal. Regardless of the obstacles, there is no appetite among people in the South for any kind of delay, even if a short postponement would allow for better preparations that would enhance the credibility of the vote. The president of the South, Salva Kiir, knows that his political career will be on the line if he has to make that call. Ethnic divisions lie just below the surface in the South, and rivals will be quick to manipulate them for political advantage. As a result, the most likely outcome remains an on-time referendum, which in all probability will be flawed and chaotic and provide an opening for Khartoum to reject the outcome. A contested referendum result would be a worst-case scenario for the South, forcing it to consider risking a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). A UDI would place international recognition in jeopardy and most likely lead to war with the North.

In the North, the political elite has been slow to comprehend the possibility that it could lose the South, for a long time taking refuge in the mistaken belief that it can wriggle out of its obligations under the CPA, in the same way that it has evaded previous peace agreements. Now that the referendum is a reality, a sense of resigned acceptance has set in among many officials in the governing National Congress Party (NCP). Ultimately, the North does not want a return to war and is reluctantly coming round to the idea that giving up the South might be the price of peace. That does not mean, however, that it will give up the South without a murmur. NCP stalwarts are determined to drag their feet over the referendum, place obstacles in the path of the process, and discredit the vote in any way they can. If the outcome is secession, the NCP will extract as high a price as it can for letting the South walk away. That will mean driving a hard bargain over the country’s oil. While the lion’s share lies in the South, the oil infrastructure is in the North, giving Khartoum an important lever to extract concessions from Juba.

The Abyei Referendum

While the prospects of a southern referendum vote on January 9 remain tenuous but achievable, the challenges facing the separate referendum in Abyei appear intractable. Residents of this volatile border enclave are to decide whether to remain in the North or join what could be an independent South. But the fight over who should be regarded as a resident, and therefore eligible to vote, is deadlocked. The settled population of the area, the southern-oriented Ngok Dinka, say they alone should have that right. The nomadic Misseriya people, who migrate there for several months of the year from the North, are equally adamant that they should vote. Sudan has a long tradition of settling its crises at the 11th hour with national-level elites reaching deals behind closed doors and handing down decisions from on high. Such an approach might not work this time. A chasm has emerged between the dealmakers in Khartoum and Juba and the people on the ground, who are not prepared to meekly accept decisions that could affect their homes and livelihoods and challenge their sense of who they are and where they belong. For the moment, the United States is publicly sticking to the idea of a referendum—even if it is delayed—while suggesting that it is up to the two parties, as signatories of the CPA, to agree on a way forward. Behind the scenes, the suggestion is that it would go along with some kind of alternative arrangement that was mutually acceptable to the NCP and SPLM. Such a stance would feed into Sudan’s destructive habit of elite bargaining, but alternative approaches are in short supply at present.

Implications for U.S. Policymakers

The referendum will demand a reassessment of U.S. relations with both the North and the South. In the South, the United States will continue to play a crucial role in assisting economic development but will have to ensure that its help is not taken for granted. Rather it should be conditioned at an early stage on positive progress toward democratization, accountability, and the equitable distribution of national resources. So far, the SPLM has shown little inclination to open up the political field.

In the North, the United States has made it clear that Khartoum’s conduct during the referendum will shape the course of future relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that any outcome other than secession will be conclusive proof of interference by the North. In order to pressure Khartoum into playing fairly, the United States has held out the prospect of normalization of relations, proposing a package that includes an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries and the removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror. Negotiations on ending economic sanctions and easing Sudan’s enormous debt burden are predicated on Khartoum reaching a meaningful peace agreement to end the war in Darfur. These conditions are necessary but demanding. As a result, the prospects for improved relations with Khartoum are slim. The NCP will be intent on blaming the international community for presiding over the loss of one-third of its territory and consequently may become even harder to engage.

Richard Downie