The Referendum Hangover 

By Maggie Fick

January 9 may well have been the happiest and most hopeful day Southern Sudan has seen in half a century. But there is a danger in celebrating too soon.

Euphoria permeated the atmosphere in the Southern Sudanese capital on Sunday, and for good reason. For a people who have fought and endured decades of conflict, all for the remote prospect of finding independence at the end, this week is for celebrating. A new state in the south seemed finally within reach when voting began in a weeklong referendum on whether to secede from greater Sudan.

Nearly 4 million Southern Sudanese are expected to cast ballots in what the region’s leaders are dubbing their “Final Walk to Freedom.” Popular sentiment almost unanimously favors secession, and it was impossible not to notice the unbridled joy of many of the voters at a number of polling stations I visited in Juba on Sunday. At one station under a mango tree in a dusty open field, a middle-aged woman dropped her ballot in the plastic box, dipped her finger in blue ink, and proceeded to literally skip out of the station, ululating as she went.

 That the voting is happening at all is incredible. Despite tough odds and scores of doomsday analyses that warned it could be delayed, marred by violence, or stopped altogether (mea culpa: I am among those who had such fears), polls opened on time in 10 southern states, in northern Sudan where many southerners have resided since the war, and in eight countries worldwide that host a Sudanese diaspora.

Still, there is a danger in celebrating too early. Voters may call for an independent Southern Sudan as they cast their ballots this week, but the means by which the new country would split off is still subject to difficult negotiations and thorny details. There is no agreement over a border, citizenship, the sharing of natural resources, and one contentious border region called Abyei. So while its people are celebrating, Southern Sudan’s leaders are eager to get back to the negotiating table with Khartoum, where a long agenda awaits after the voting finishes. If international attention wanes after the votes are cast, those negotiations could easily take a turn for the worse. Read more…

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on January 10, 2011


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