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Sudan’s messy divorce

BY KIRSTEN JACOBSEN | JANUARY 24, 2011 7:10 AM

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In a rare turn of events, Africa’s largest country — and possibly its newest — captivated international media attention as 3.8 million southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to bisect their country. From Jan. 9 to Jan. 15, people flocked to the polling booths in the country and around the world, taking their chance to sever ties with an oppressive and inaccessible government in the north.

While violence and political turmoil have been the unfortunate norm, this referendum may be historic in more than one way: It is the latest and greatest chance for the Sudanese government and warring tribes to rise above the warfare that has beleaguered the country for so long and finally take steps toward enacting a lasting and prosperous peace.

“Sudan is one of the most diversified regions in Africa, with thousands of tribes, two major religions, Islam and Christian, and many different ethnicities,” wrote Mahmoud Siddig in an e-mail. Siddig is a University of Iowa undergraduate originally from Rufa’a, a small city in northern Sudan. “If one group tries to rule this largest country in Africa using one form of ideology and ignoring that of the others, Sudan can be expected to break in hundreds of pieces.”

Preliminary results show that some 98.8 percent of voters opted to form a separate Sudan, one free from the dictatorial (and genocidal) rule of President Omar al-Bashir and the poorly drawn territorial borders imposed on the continent some 110 years ago. The sitting president of south Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement will become its official head of government. And, despite recent reports of some instances of ballot stuffing, it appears that succession will proceed following the official announcement of results expected in early February, according to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission.

Apparently, 2011 is a good year for shaking up the status quo in Africa.

Because Siddig is one of the roughly 32 million Sudanese born in the northern half of the country, he was unable to vote in what has been called a “historic referendum.”

Yet many international observers and Sudanese citizens predict that the results will only serve to exacerbate tensions. Sara Mitchell, a UI associate professor of political science and an expert on civil wars, predicts that a return to violence is inevitable.

The south is home to some 80 percent of the nation’s oil supply, and the oil-rich region of Abeyi has yet to vote on which side it will join. To complicate matters, the major oil pipeline runs through the north, and the country as a whole has an outstanding external debt of $35 million.

Siddig feels that the best solution for a peaceful future in Sudan involves not only a true re-democratization of the government but a more democratic mindset in its people. “We need a newly ‘educated’ democratic government that respects and recognizes everyone else’s beliefs and ideologies, culture and background, and so on and evolve to a much more developed state,” he said.

This sentiment is echoed by many, both the residents of the tumultuous country and international observers, and most prominently the United Nations, which has prepared for a “worst-case scenario.” The “resource curse” that has plagued African nations for so long is positioned to yet again throw a wrench in the cogs of progress. Yet thanks to the increased media presence, international awareness, and the relatively uneventful nature of the voting process, there remains a glimmer of hope that the secession may occur sans violence.

“This is the first time I have seen the U.S. government devote so many high-level resources to preventing violence before it happens rather than responding to it after the fact,” Samantha Power, an Obama administration adviser and expert on genocide, told Michael Abramowitz of the Washington Post.

Until the official tally is released in February, there’s not much to do but sit and wait. By July 9, the planned day of South Sudan’s independence, the world may welcome country 193 into existence.


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