The bitter rivalry that has persisted for decades between Muslims and Christians in Sudan is set to come to an end if the results of the recently concluded referendum vote confirm the desire of southerners to secede. Southern Sudan conducted a referendum Jan. 9-15 so that residents of the region could decide whether to continue being part of Sudan or to have their own independent country. The results will be announced on Feb. 14. 

Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba, in Southern Sudan, described the referendum as the happiest moment for the people there, adding that it has presented an opportunity for the southerners to achieve peace, which they have not experienced for decades. 

“It is a historic event for the people of Southern Sudan, who are prepared and ready to develop their region as an independent state. The feeling of the people is that they have been marginalized for many years and want to take their destiny in their hands,” Archbishop Loro said.

Decades of civil war 

Sudan is Africa’s biggest country. It has a population of about 40 million people with about 8 million living in the south. The country has been embroiled in war for decades over differences related to religion. The country’s leadership, in Khartoum in the northern part of the country, has been dominated by Muslims. The southern part is predominantly Christian. 

The southerners began an armed struggle in the 1980s to resist the domination. The rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), formed in 1983 by disaffected officers from Sudan’s army, quickly amassed a formidable army that engaged the government in a persistent guerrilla war. 

After many years of failed attempts to end the war, which caused the deaths of more than 2 million people, destruction of property and stalled development, a peace deal was finally signed in 2005. Under the deal, which was called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the government and the SPLA agreed to stop fighting and form a joint government. 

SPLA leader John Garang was incorporated in the government as vice president of the entire country and president of a semi-autonomous South. He died in a helicopter crash the same year and his position was taken by Salva Kiir Mayardit, his second in command. 

One of the key tenets of the peace deal was a commitment that after five years, the people of Southern Sudan would vote in a referendum to decide if they wanted to be part of Sudan or secede to form their own country. This was the basis of the referendum.

Nation from scratch 

“There is an air of optimism in Southern Sudan,” Daniel Griffin, Sudan adviser for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the foreign aid agency of the U.S. bishops, told Our Sunday Visitor from Juba, the headquarters of Southern Sudan.

CRS has been involved in helping the people of Southern Sudan overcome the challenges faced during and after the civil war. 

“We have been training local partners in conflict resolution and conflict early-warning systems. Although we did not directly fund the referendum, we helped the local Church educate and prepare the Sudanese for the vote,” Griffin said. 

Griffin observed that Southern Sudan was completely devastated and no development projects were being initiated by the Khartoum government during the war. This has left a legacy of massive poverty that includes high levels of illiteracy and lack of medical care. 

“The challenge facing the southerners will be to build a nation from scratch,” Griffin said. “They will need to build a national identity, beyond ethnicity, and will need to do it quickly, and probably without enough aid from donors.” 

The aid agency plans to continue its programs to assist in nation building. According to Griffin, CRS will give priority to the thousands of exiled Sudanese who will be returning to the region. The agency will also fund programs in the areas of water, food, agriculture, health and education. 

There were fears that the north would not allow the referendum to take place because Muslim clerics were issuing statements demanding that the government not allow the country to be split. But the country’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, visited the south before the referendum and pledged to accept the results of the referendum. 

“We will work together to develop the south should the people vote for independence,” Bashir said. 

With Bashir having toned down his earlier stance against separation, there is optimism that chances of a return of war are slim. For his part, Southern Sudan President Kiir — a longtime supporter of independence — has urged the people of Southern Sudan to forgive northerners for the suffering during the civil war. 

“You should forgive them for the deaths that happened because of conflict with the north,” he said. 

But even as the new country begins the small steps to autonomy, it will have to undertake a delicate coexistence with the north. There are still some issues yet to be resolved. These include the demarcation of the final borders between north and south. This is a delicate matter because there is vast oil wealth in Abyei, an area that is claimed by both the north and south. During the referendum, there was violence involving the Dinka, a southern tribe, and the Misseriya, a Muslim tribe from the north. More than 30 people died in the fighting. 

The boundary issue is likely to be resolved amicably, but the south and the north will need to cooperate in the exploitation of oil wealth. Most of the oil is in the south, but the infrastructure needed to bring it to market, such as refineries and sea port, are in the north. 

David Karanja writes from Kenya.

International View (sidebar)

The Southern Sudan referendum was closely watched around the globe. President Barack Obama said that the sight of so many Sudanese participating in peaceful and orderly voting is “an inspiration to the world.” According to Obama, the vote is a tribute to the determination of Sudanese and leaders of south Sudan to forge a better future. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called the referendum a significant achievement. 

“The United States commends the millions of southern Sudanese people who participated in this historic process, and applauds both northern and southern leaders for creating conditions that allowed voters to cast their ballots freely and without fear, intimidation or coercion,” Clinton said in a statement. 

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Foundation observed the vote, said the conduct of the referendum broadly met international standards. 

Russia pledged to recognize and work with the new country if the results favor separation. Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia, met last December with Salva Kiir to discuss future relations between Russia and South Sudan.