Last Saturday evening the week long referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan ended. Polling stations closed, ballot boxes were sealed and over the coming weeks the vote will be tallied. The result which is expected in mid-February, seems certain to split Africa’s largest country and create the world’s newest nation.
Despite violent clashes in the oil-rich Abyei region last week which reportedly left more than 30 dead, the referendum in the rest of the country has been a resounding success. Turnouts were high with an overwhelming number of Southern Sudan’s four million eligible voters participating. The indefinite postponement of a referendum in Abyei has ironically served to postpone a potentially explosive source of conflict over oil revenues in the region.
Secession of the predominantly Christian and Animist south from the Muslim North would take place in July. The partition would represent the final stage of a peace process that successfully brought to end Africa’s longest war. But as the violence in Abyei highlights, it carries with it dangers of a return to instability. Key to averting a slide back to civil war will be international recognition of a newly formed southern Sudan, not just by the United Nations and global powers but crucially from the African Union (AU). But with respect for colonial borders being one of the AU’s founding principles and fear among many African leaders that southern Sudanese independence could encourage other secessions across the continent, the AU’s position on recognition is far from clear.
In October Muammar Gaddafi warned that the situation in Sudan “could become a contagious disease that affects the whole of Africa”. His concerns are keenly felt in countries such as Senegal, Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic Congo where separatist groups are currently fighting for autonomy but they also resonate across a continent where capricious colonial borders have divided tribes and clans for generations. Whilst the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, reluctantly recognised Eritrea after it broke away from Ethiopia in 1993 the AU have not changed their position. Indeed the AU’s position has been a key obstacle to Somaliland’s bid for international recognition since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991.
Southern Sudan’s chances of gaining international recognition are boosted by the fact that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brought Sudan’s second civil war to an end in 2005 had tremendous political investment from the international community. The AU is a signatory and guarantor of the CPA under whose terms this weeks’ referendum on self-determination was guaranteed. America also played and important role in negotiating the CPA and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently spoke in favour of independence for Southern Sudan. It is expected that the US will be among the first nations to recognise Southern Sudan. Less clear is the position of China, a key investor in Sudan and a strong ally of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
General Secretary of the African Union, Jean Ping, admitted recently that the referendum will have repercussions for the entire African continent. “Sudan is a crossroads, a point of convergence between East, West and North Africa, as well as between Muslims and Christians” he said. “If the last phase of the implementation process of the CPA is peaceful, orderly and credible, Sudan will serve as an example and further proof that Africa is capable of finding effective solutions to its problems.”
Ultimately, no matter how unified the position of the international community and how much support they offer, the future of Sudan will be determined by the Sudanese people and their leaders. In the past President al-Bashir has fiercely opposed southern independence but has recently adopted a more moderate tone stating that he would respect the outcome of the referendum.
Voters in the territory have almost certainly opted for independence and the formation of a 54th African state but international recognition will be needed to provide the new-born nation of southern Sudan with the legitimacy it will need as it takes its first shaky steps towards creating a stable, secure and democracy in one of the poorest and most volatile places on earth.