The Long Road to South Sudan’s Secession Vote

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the LA Times on November 19, 2010.

In about two months, Africa may have a new country, the first since the end of the colonial era. On Jan. 9, the people of southern Sudan are expected to vote in a referendum to determine whether their region will become an independent nation. Indications are that the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of seceding, but the practicalities of achieving a free, fair and peaceful vote are daunting.

This referendum is the culmination of a long and bloody path. The civil war between north and south Sudan, the longest in African history, claimed the lives of 2 million people and finally ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Since then, the two sides have been slowly working their way toward the referendum.

Yet southern Sudan is far from ready. The registration of voters began just this week. Polling stations need to be erected, not an easy task in an area bigger than California with only 40 miles of paved roads. They need electoral observers, ballot counters, trucks, computers — the list goes on.

Another challenge is the border. Under the 2005 peace agreement, the border between the north and south was supposed to be demarcated within six months, but it still has not happened. The border runs through the main oil-producing area, making it a highly volatile region. The division of revenue from the oil, most of which lies in the south, has still not been agreed on.

The United States is not the only country that has an interest in seeing this resolved. China gets 7% of its foreign oil supplies from Sudan and has a 40% stake in south Sudan’s state oil company, GNPOC. Any fighting over the oil fields would threaten its supplies.

Africa is often accused of not doing enough to help itself, but it has been Sudan’s neighbors that have worked hard for five years to ensure that both sides maintain the fragile peace and prepare for the referendum.

Kenya led the negotiations that ended the fighting and created the peace agreement in 2005. It has carried out five years of shuttle diplomacy between Juba and Khartoum, the capitals of south and north Sudan, respectively, to keep both sides on track. It has provided 35,000 primary school teachers to the south, which has suffered decades of neglect and fighting. In addition, Kenya has lent some of its best and brightest civil servants to help Juba create a professional civil service.

Unfortunately, during this same time the international community has been largely absent. The referendum is hardly a surprise — the date was set at the signing of the peace agreement — but only now are the United States and other Western nations beginning to pay serious attention. President Obama attended a crisis meeting on the issue at the United Nations in September, and the U.S. envoy to south Sudan is talking about a “Juba surge,” significantly increasing the number of U.S. diplomats in the region.

South Sudan urgently needs the sustained attention of the international community if it is to carry out a successful and credible referendum. This will require more than diplomatic words; it will require resources, funding and expertise to tackle the logistical challenges involved in voter registration, setting up polls, getting people to them and counting the votes.

The importance of an orderly and efficient voting system cannot be emphasized enough. For the referendum to be seen as legitimate, turnout has to reach 60%, a tall order in one of the most inaccessible regions of Africa. But if south Sudan does opt for independence, it will also need the support of the United States and other nations to build effective institutions that will bring stability and pave the way for the new nation.

Kenyans know all too well what the cost of failure will be. During the civil war in Sudan, Kenya had to take in 2 million Sudanese refugees, creating ethnic tensions there and a sizable drag on the economy. At all costs, Kenyans want to avoid a return to fighting and a descent into chaos. Kenya already has one Somalia on its border; it cannot afford another.

Regardless of the outcome, it is important that the world respect the will of the Sudanese people. If there is to be a new country in Africa, let it be blessed with legitimacy from the outset. South Sudan must not become the first nation to be born a failed state. We can still prevent it, but only if the international community gives the region its full attention over the coming months.