Sudan decision day looms: minister

Referendum next month may see south opt for independence


The fate of Sudan will be decided in a referendum expected in January to let the strife-torn south determine whether to stay in the country or become independent.

Amid international concern that the vote, only by the south, may be pushed back, Mutrif Siddiq, the visiting Sudanese state minister of humanitarian affairs, firmly stated that it will be held in January.

During an interview with The Japan Times on Tuesday, Siddiq recognized that the process for the referendum, including legal preparations and the setting up of a commission to oversee the vote, has been delayed. He added that the referendum may not take place Jan. 9, as slated, but stressed that “definitely, the referendum will take place in January.”

Siddiq was in Tokyo to participate as a panelist in a Wednesday symposium on peacekeeping and peace-building hosted by the Foreign Ministry and the United Nations Information Center.

The country’s second civil war broke out in 1983 between the Arab Muslims of the north and the Christian Africans of the south when then President Gaafar Nimeiry tried to turn Sudan into a Muslim state by introducing Islamic law. An estimated 2 million people were killed during what is said to be the continent’s longest civil war.

The conflict lasted 22 years, until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of the south and the government of Sudan. The Jan. 9, 2005, accord stipulated that the southern Sudanese would hold a referendum six years later to determine whether to remain part of Sudan or become a separate nation. Sudan’s population is about 39.15 million people, including 8.20 million in the south.

“It is not the timing for us which matters,” Siddiq said. “It has to be according to the law, it has to be transparent, it has to be free and it has to be a credible process in order to obtain the recognition of all those who are concerned.”

If the south opts for independence, it will become Africa’s 54th country.

But Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo noted the south would have a host of issues to tackle, including choosing a new name and currency, keeping in check potential power struggles among its various tribes, as well as the nature of its relationship with the north and surrounding countries. A further concern is whether the south would possess the administrative ability to run itself independently.

Siddiq, who is from the north, said he believes Sudan should remain united, citing various reasons, including social and economic factors.

The state minister also pointed out that the oil reserves in the south are not inexhaustible and stressed that there are other resources for the north and south to codevelop, including agriculture and livestock.

“The separation of the south and north is impossible because (they) share the same people . . . we are linked together socially, we are linked together economically,” Siddiq said.

“The consequences of the separation are very serious not only on the north but even on south Sudan itself.”

Siddiq stressed the importance of Japan’s aid and support to Sudan.

Japan has been a major donor to Sudan, granting $440 million since 2005 to support conflict victims and develop the fields of health care, sanitation and education. The aid also covers support for governance and building democracy.

In addition, Sudan in 2008 became the only African country to which Japan has dispatched members of the Self-Defense Forces to a U.N. peacekeeping operation.

“Japan’s contribution to UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Sudan) is very appreciated and it is a very important self-defense component of the mission itself,” Siddiq said.

“And we would like Japan to be seen as a strong international actor, too, because it is a balanced-approach country.”

As well as the civil war that lasted more than 20 years, a conflict in Darfur, in northwest Sudan, erupted in 2003 between Arabs and Africans. The ongoing conflict is said to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, resulting in 300,000 deaths and several million refugees and displaced people.

The U.S. Congress labeled the situation in Darfur “genocide” and in 2009 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The U.S. has had strained relations with Sudan as the African country supported Iraq when it invaded Kuwait. Washington designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993, citing its connections with terrorist organizations. Various terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden, have stayed in the country, according to the U.S. State Department’s website.

Last month, however, the U.S. government offered to delist Sudan if a credible referendum is held on time.

Siddiq, however, argued that there is no reason why Sudan is on the list of terrorism sponsors and said it was merely a political decision.

“There is not one technical reason why Sudan is (on) that list,” Siddiq said. “We hope that the U.S. will be credible and honor its commitment, (but) there is doubt in the minds of many Sudanese that the U.S. will not honor this commitment.”

The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement after the ICC’s warrant was issued, stating that Tokyo respects the “independence and decisions” made by the court.

But Siddiq argued that there should not be outside intervention in the Darfur conflict.

“We think that we have the right to fight rebels and rebellion in our country,” Siddiq said. “No one can deny that right and we consider this fight as a crime.”

A graduate of the University of Khartoum’s faculty of medicine, Siddiq served as undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2001 and 2010, before becoming the vice minister of humanitarian affairs. Siddiq and his ministry act as the coordinator between the government and civil society as well as the international players to improve the situation in Sudan.

For a country that has endured conflicts and hardships for decades,

Siddiq said he hopes Sudan will become a nation that is prosperous and beneficial to its people and to the world.

“We want a peaceful interaction with the international community,” Siddiq said.

“We think that cooperation is better than isolation. Isolation will lead to more complications (while) cooperation will lead to more understanding and more sharing of international values and principles.”