The public unrest across North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks has overshadowed an extraordinary event in Sudan, where the country peacefully — and, by almost all accounts, fairly — held a referendum that backed independence for “South” Sudan. A new country looks set to be born.
The Republic of Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the Arab world and the 10th largest in the world, with a population just under 44 million. Since President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup in 1989, it has enjoyed robust economic growth — which topped 10 percent before the global financial crisis — primarily on the back of oil resources with the aid of macroeconomic reforms. The bulk of its citizens still earn a living from agriculture; not surprisingly, 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and unemployment nears 20 percent.
The biggest obstacle to growth, development and prosperity is the country’s dual identity. Sudan is a bifurcated nation, with an Arab and predominately Muslim north and an African, Christian and animist South — divisions that were accentuated by British colonial rule. A civil war broke out even before independence and continued until 1972, as southerners protested domination by the north and disrespect of their religion. A ceasefire accord prevailed until 1983, when fighting resumed over the same old grievances. Fighting has been waged almost continuously ever since.
Peace talks ultimately bore fruit. A 2005 peace agreement promised the South more say in national affairs, southern autonomy for six years and a referendum at the end of that period on independence. To no one’s surprise, almost all voters — more than 99 percent of the nearly 4 million who cast ballots over the weeklong election in mid-January — chose independence.
The Sudanese government let the election go forward without interference and appears to have accepted the results with equanimity. Despite voting irregularities — in several areas, turnout exceeded 100 percent — the process and the results have been widely applauded by international and regional observers from the African Union to the European Union.
There is speculation that deals were struck as well to win Mr. al-Bashir’s agreement. He has been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The court has the power to suspend an indictment if it jeopardizes peace negotiations. His acquiescence to the referendum and independence may be a step toward the ultimate quashing of the charges against him. In a similar move, the United States reportedly agreed to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which it has been on since 1993.
Equally important was Chinese pressure to back the referendum. Beijing is one of the chief backers of the Khartoum government and it has historically been sensitive to any moves that could promote the legitimacy of the aspirations of independence-minded regions. But China is equally mindful of its need to maintain access to Sudan’s oil exports: China takes about 65 percent of total Sudanese oil exports, which constitutes about 6 percent of Chinese total oil imports. With some three- quarters of Sudanese reserves located in the South, China had reasons to stay on good terms with southerners. The location of those reserves promises to be a big challenge as Sudan and the South — the new nation’s name is one of the big questions yet to be answered — go about the process of division.
The simplest and most important question is where the border will be drawn. Critical to this is the future of Abyei, an oil-rich region that was supposed to hold its own referendum to decide whether it would join the South or remain with the north. Due to disagreements among Sudanese leaders, the Abyei vote has been postponed. With Mr. al-Bashir saying he won’t accept Abyei’s departure and the South demanding it for the sake of stability, the region is a potential tinderbox.
Oil is part of a larger concern — the economic viability of the new nation. Oil generates more than 90 percent of Sudan’s export earnings; it represents 98 percent of the total revenues of the South. The 2005 peace accord promised a 50-50 revenue sharing agreement. While the South has 75 percent of the oil, the north has the pipelines and refineries.
The new government must ensure that the revenues are put to good use. More than two-thirds of Sudanese have no access to health care; 20 percent of mothers die in childbirth; 20 percent of children die before age 5. Corruption is rampant, and once the joy of independence wears off, the realities of governing may prove overwhelming. The rest of the world must engage the new nation in South Sudan to ensure that its hopes are not betrayed.
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