After spending 39 of the last 56 years immersed in civil war, Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is facing massive change. With the likelihood of South Sudan’s independence increasing daily, many are optimistic, but this only marks the beginning of a long struggle towards peace and stability.
Conforming to the terms of 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a referendum to determine South Sudan’s separation from the rest of the country concluded on Jan. 15. To gain independence, 60 per cent of registered voters must cast ballots and 50 per cent must be in favour of separation. Although official results will not be announced until Feb. 14, several reputable sources have reported that both targets have already been met.
Many have praised the orderly unfolding of the referendum, citing the northern government’s pledge to acknowledge independence, good voter turnout and relatively fair and peaceful voting conditions. This seems miraculous in a country in which over 2 million died in the latest civil war and another 300,000 were killed in the conflict in Darfur, with millions of citizens displaced and living in refugee camps.
There continue to be concerns over peace in the Darfur and Abyei regions of Sudan. Some speculate that the successful separation of South Sudan will reignite rebel activity in Darfur in pursuit of their own independence. The fact that the Sudanese government suspended peace talks with these rebels only days before the referendum began does not bode well for future negotiations.
Abyei is a highly disputed area nestled in the oil fields along the proposed north-south border. The CPA originally stipulated for a referendum on Abyei’s future to coincide with the one in the south, but it has been postponed indefinitely due to disputes over voter eligibility. This delay sparked hostilities between local rival groups that recently claimed 30 lives. Although the tribes’ representatives have come to a temporary agreement, the fate of Abyei remains undecided.
Furthermore, the viability of an independent southern state is compromised by the area’s overwhelming poverty. The proposed border does place a majority of the country’s oil fields in South Sudan, but critics caution that this huge economic resource could encourage corruption and damage other sectors of the economy. The pervasive problems of illiteracy, clean water and food security in South Sudan remain daunting and will require continued external support to resolve.
Peace in the area will not be achieved without a strong commitment on the part of the international community. Canada, in particular, which has contributed approximately $800 million to ongoing efforts in Sudan, must not cease to support humanitarian organizations, must continue to pressure the Sudanese government to proceed with negotiations over Darfur and Abyei and should follow through with a proposed diplomatic delegation to South Sudan following the referendum.
Although the impending success of South Sudan’s independence seems to offer a fresh start for this troubled area, we cannot forget the horrifying events of recent years. Omar al-Bashir, president of North Sudan, is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, and is unlikely to be brought to justice. The brutal violence with which he carried out the genocide in Darfur is an unpleasant reminder of the devastating effects of the international community’s failure to accept the responsibility to protect.
Aeron MacHattie is a former chief copy editor at the Concordian and VP communications for Stand Concordia, which will be hosting an open forum on the referendum with professor Khalid Medani of McGill and Laku Bill, a South Sudanese refugee, on Jan. 27 at 4 p.m. in the seventh floor lounge of the Hall Building.