Preparing for South Sudan’s Crucial Referendum

In diplomatic language, the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan, Mohammed Chande Othman, warned the Council, which began its current session on September 13, 2010, that “With the referendum on South Sudan yet to be conducted, it is essential that the government provide an environment conducive to the exercise of political rights, with firm guarantees of the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim National Constitution.”

The strong recommendation was addressed both to the Government of National Unity (the central government in Khartoum) and the Government of South Sudan which must carry out the Referendum on January 9, 2011.  However, the warning must also be heard by other governments and by non-governmental organizations working on conflict resolution and development.  Despite the historic peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan five years ago in 2005, the threat of renewed civil war looms closer by the day. The US special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, has been quoted as saying “This place could go down in flames tomorrow.”  The linchpin of the peace agreement is a referendum five years after the signing of the peace accords in which the people of southern Sudan will have the options of continuing the confederal system put in place by the peace agreement, of modifying it in ways not set out, or of secession, thus creating a new state of an independent South Sudan. When the 2005 peace agreement was being painfully hammered out over several years of on-again-off-again negotiations, it was hoped that the southern Sudanese would vote to continue the confederal form of government which, after five years, would be seen to be working and bringing benefits to the peoples of both north and south.

However four factors have worked against a positive view of the status quo led by the Government of National Unity’s President Omar al-Bashir.

1) In 2003-2004, prior to the signing of the peace agreement (although its major elements were already agreed upon), armed conflict broke out in Darfur, a large but economically and politically marginal area.  Since the start of this fighting, some 300,000 people have been killed (or died of war-related diseases) and some three million people have been uprooted as either internally displaced persons or as refugees, mostly to Chad.  Despite the efforts of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMAD), fighting and repression continues. As Mohammed Othman noted in his UN report (A/HRC/14/41) “In Darfur, notwithstanding the general improvement in the security situation, banditry, criminal activities and intermittent military activities by the parties to the conflict have continued.  In some areas; aerial bombardment and troop mobilization by the Sudanese Armed Forces have been reported. In the context of this ongoing violence, United Nations and humanitarian personnel face significant risks to their lives. A significant number of UNAMID and humanitarian staff were deliberately attacked; some were abducted and held in captivity for long periods.”

2) As a result of government policies and practices in the Darfur conflict, and after a through examination of the evidence presented by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court has issued an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity, murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, rape, and pillaging — hardly the image of the sort of man one wants to lead one’s country!

3) The historic leader of south Sudan, John Garang de Mabior, who had just been installed as first vice-president of the Government of National Unity, died on 30 July 2005 in a crash of a Ugandan military helicopter on its return from a meeting of Garang with the President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni.  Garang had been the key negotiator of the 2005 peace accord and was favourable to the confederal structure. Although Garang had spent most of his life as a military commander, he had a PhD in agriculture from a US university and had some feeling for the difficulties of re-establishing a ecologically-sound agriculture for Sudan. However, as with many strong leaders, he had no entourage of strong, competent persons to take over leadership positions.  Salva Kiir Mayardit, a long-time military companion of Garang in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) had been chosen by Garang as his second in command, knowing that he would take no personal initiatives. Now Salva Kiir is President of South Sudan and First Vice-President of the Government of National Unity. However, he does not have Garang’s vision of transforming all of Sudan —creating a “New Sudan” as Garang’s slogan had it. It is likely that he would prefer to be president of an independent state, and he has not tried to “pull his weight” in the national government.

4) There has been little improvement in the standard of living of people in south Sudan since 2005 while there has been a showy development of Khartoum with many new Chinese-built buildings and roads. Thus the people of the south have seen few positive benefits from the confederal system.  Many hope that as an independent state more of the revenues from the sale of oil to China and other Asian countries would come their way.

There have been two phases to the Sudanese Civil War. The first phase (1954-1972) had ended with negotiations facilitated by the All-African Conference of Churches. The 1972-1982 decade was one of relative peace, but it was not used to heal the divisions or to work out the forms of government administration and legal systems that would have been acceptable to all segments of Sudanese society.  International attention on Sudan had diminished once the 1972 peace agreement was signed, and warning signals that all was not well were ignored internationally. Thus, in 1982 southern soldiers who had been integrated into the national army revolted, and a second phase of the civil war continued from 1983 until the end of 2004.

By 2004, there were basically two major changes in the social and economic conditions which could lead to a peace-power-sharing agreement.  The first was the growth of a Sudanese civil society which, worn out waiting for political leaders to settle the violence, started to make their own efforts. There had been local agreements, especially in the south, to lessen the Nuer-Dinka ethnic conflicts and between the Dinka and the Baggara Arab groups who have been used as government militias and slave raiders against the Dinka. In the north, there had been the growth of women and student associations working for peace as well as some relatively independent publications. These civil society actors started being key catalysts for reform and change in Sudan. Though brutalized early on by the regime, they have been slowly reorganizing and building their capacity to participate meaningfully in the future.

The second and most powerful force for an end to fighting was the desire for wealth from oil. Exploitation of major oil deposits since 1999 had changed the nature of the struggles. Oil wealth is a promise of a better material life which can overcome religious and ethnic motivations. Oil also brings in China as a major player. China wants oil stability. It is uninterested in human rights and wants to avoid votes on self-determination. Therefore China as the leading country in Sudan’s oil business has pushed behind the scenes for a power and wealth-sharing solution which would provide relative stability, avoid a referendum on self-determination and not divide the country which would mean re-negotiation of the oil accords

While some Sudanese authorities would like to see the referendum put off and are probably calculating the costs of delaying, aborting, or militarily pre-empting the referendum, there is too much international attention placed on holding the referendum not to hold a relatively fair referendum. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will be a new phase of renegotiating peace.

Thus the next three months must be devoted to seeing that the referendum is carried out in the best conditions possible:

First, the United Nations needs to train and brief a large number of independent election observers.  Such election observers need to be deployed during the run-up to the referendum. The abuses during the April elections came less during the polling day than during the campaign itself and during the earlier census.  Minority party candidates both in North and South Sudan were threatened by members of the dominant parties. A fair referendum means that the options can be presented clearly and discussed openly. It is not just a matter of access to a polling booth. Organizations with election-monitoring experience, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should be invited to contribute expertise.  The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to have staff present during the preparations for the referendum — as well as during the referendum— to see that basic human rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and other human rights necessary for an open referendum are respected.

Second, all countries with a vital stake in peace and justice in the Sudan area need to be consulted so as to provide support for the referendum and to discuss the possible outcomes well in advance — and the United Nations needs to have contingency planning in case violence occurs over the results of the referendum.

Third, there is a role for non-governmental organizations, both those with an emphasis on social development — health, education, agriculture — and those devoted to conflict resolution. There is a need for cooperation, looking at who is already doing what and where, and mapping unmet needs and contingency planning. As the UN Independent Expert pointed out, in south Sudan, there is already violence due to competition for grazing land, pasture, and water resources.  Women are particularly targeted, and there has been an increase in the abduction of children. While most of the violence concerns tensions between the Nuer and the Dinka, smaller tribal groups can be involved or caught up if violence due to the referendum spreads.  The south is awash with small conventional firearms from the civil war conflict and people have been reluctant to turn the arms in.

Three months is a relatively short time for non-governmental planning, staffing and fund raising. There will be useful tasks even if there is no additional violence, but given past history, contingency planning needs to be carried out now.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.