The referendum vote on the future of Southern Sudan defied critics by passing off peacefully, but the region still faces challenges that could threaten stability, say experts and officials.
“The referendum environment was peaceful, secure and orderly to allow voters in large numbers to exercise their democratic rights with relative ease,” Victor Tonchi, head of the African Union observer mission, told reporters at the release of a preliminary report on 16 January.
Despite previous warnings of the risk of violence, the 9-15 January voting period was peaceful and calm, observers said. Enthusiastic voters queued patiently for hours, with a high turnout in the South. The numbers were, however, far lower in the North.
“This is our moment in history, when we get to choose our destiny for the first time in our lives,” voter Susan Tombe said. “Nothing is more important to us as the people of the South, and nobody would do anything to spoil it.”
The referendum is the climax of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war. That conflict claimed some two million lives, according to observers.
Final results are not due to be released until 14 February, but early returns suggest an overwhelming support for secession, a view backed by the US-based Carter Center.
“Based on early reports of vote-counting results, it appears virtually certain that the results will be in favour of secession,” it said in a 17 January statement. “The Center finds that the referendum process to date is broadly consistent with international standards for democratic elections and represents the genuine expression of the will of the electorate.”
US President Barack Obama congratulated Sudan on the peaceful vote. "The sight of so many Sudanese casting their votes in a peaceful and orderly fashion was an inspiration to the world and a tribute to the determination of the people and leaders of South Sudan to forge a better future," Obama said on 16 January.
Similar sentiments were expressed by observers including the Arab League, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and European Union.
Before 9 July, when the South could potentially become independent, observers say key issues remain outstanding. These include negotiations on citizenship, the sharing of oil revenues - with reserves mainly in the South, but pipelines only running North; border demarcation and Sudan’s crippling debt, estimated at US$38 billion.
One key concern is the border area of Abyei, where at least 30 people were killed in clashes as voting began.
Abyei was due to hold a separate referendum at the same time as the South, when its residents would decide whether to become part of the North or South. But progress on that vote remains in deadlock, with the largely Northern-supported Misseriya community – who travel through the region annually to graze their cattle – demanding a right to vote.
That demand is rejected by the largely Southern-supported Dinka Ngok people, and Southerners, who say only permanent residents should be allowed to vote. A deal signed on 17 January between Khartoum and Juba over Abyei agreed a raft of measures including boosting security with extra Joint Intergrated Units - the special North-South military force.
Observers suggest the issue of Abyei will now be wrapped in post-referendum negotiations, with the South working for an annexation of the land, and the North wanting to extract a hefty payment in debt, oil and border deals elsewhere. Such a deal would need to involve agreement from those on the ground, but many are still demanding their promised referendum goes ahead.
"Just as commitments were made for a Southern Sudan referendum, so were binding commitments made for an Abyei referendum," said Deng Mading of the civil society group, the Abyei Referendum Forum. "We must have resolution of our status."
According to Douglas Johnson, a Sudan expert and former member of the Abyei Boundaries Commission, “Abyei has so far proved to be the most difficult part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [CPA] to implement, more difficult than the determination of the rest of the North-South boundary or the division of oil revenues."
Senior Southern officials such as Deng Alor have accused the North of backing militias in the region – claims rejected by Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
“We are telling the NCP that it is better to stop doing this because when your house is built of glass don’t throw stones at people – the NCP is very vulnerable and they know it,” Alor, Minister for Regional Cooperation, said.
Johnson, while calling for the implementation of the referendum provisions before the end of the dry season in May, called for the creation of “long-term mechanisms” to enable both Misseriya and Dinka Ngok to “collaborate in secure annual movements of pastoralists”.
In spite of the tensions, the risk of renewed conflict is low, say some officials.
"We have spent so many years bleeding in the bush and losing our close friends and brothers, that both North and South will have to think twice about war," Gier Chuang, Southern Sudan's Internal Affairs Minister. “We are working for a peaceful, stable South Sudan."
The key challenge is that major humanitarian and development problems remain. More than 180,000 Southerners have returned from the North in the past three months, adding pressure to communities already struggling to cope, according to figures released by Georg Charpentier, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan.
“Every effort is being made to ensure that the basic needs of the returnees are met, including food, access to water and sanitation, blankets and water,” Charpentier said.
But the long-term needs are huge. "The chronic poverty, lack of development and the threat of violence that blight people’s daily lives will not disappear after the referendum,” Melinda Young, head of Oxfam in Southern Sudan, said in a statement on the eve of the vote.
“Whatever the outcome of the vote, these long-term issues need to be addressed," Young added. "Failure to do so risks undoing any progress made in the past few years.”
Concern is also growing in the North, where observers fear a possible backlash if the South breaks away. Demonstrations over rising food prices have sparked concern, as inflation grows and the Sudanese pound has weakened against the dollar in recent months.
Veteran Islamist opposition politician Hassan al-Turabi was arrested on 18 January after calling for a Tunisian style uprising in the capital Khartoum.
“There are a lot of people thinking, now what happens to us in the North?” said a civil society activist in Khartoum, who asked not be named.
“We assume the South will be separate,” he added. “We have our problems too: Darfur and the east have had rebellions. Will they be the ones to ask, ‘now it is our turn?’”
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