A referendum to secede from the nation of Sudan, a measure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, was put to southern Sudanese voters Sunday, January 9th. Polling results released in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, showed a 95% voter turn out and overwhelming support for secession. 99% of the 3,779,110 valid votes cast supported the creation of an independent, autonomous South Sudan. When the CPA expires in July and independence officially recognized, the southern Sudanese people will have brought a peaceful end to the 17-year long civil war that displaced an estimated 5 million people and resulted in the deaths of 2 million from war-related famine, disease, and casualties.
A BBC article published last week included a set of maps that illustrate the ethnic, linguistic, and topographic lines that divide Northern and Southern Sudan, joined unhappily in 1956 after the end of Anglo-Egyptian rule. Northerners, who have been the predominant voice of the government’s administrative functions, have long sought to unify the country along the lines of Arabism and Islam despite the predominance of Christians and Animists in the south. This protracted conflict, rooted in cultural and religious differences, led to the unrest that has plagued Sudan for nearly three quarters of its existence.
The call for independence was made at 3,000 polling stations inside Sudan and in eight countries sanctioned to establish Out-of-Country Voting Stations. These countries included Kenya, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the US, where 8,789 Sudanese expatriates registered to vote. Expatriates, the majority of whom are formerly resettled refugees, traveled to either Omaha, Phoenix, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Alexandria, or Nashville to exercise their right to vote.
The peaceful policy choice of independence by referendum has given many hope and prompted many thousands of refugees to return to their southern ancestral homes. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that over 120,000 Sudanese have already migrated from the northern to southern regions in anticipation of the referendum. In the contested town of Abyei, viewed as the bridge between both north and south, the UN reports to having aided 35,000 returning refugees and estimates that 2,000 people are crossing daily into South Sudan.
Yet, the hopes stoked by the return of thousands of refugees and displaced persons are tempered by reports of renewed culturally divisive recommendations. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of NPR writes that pronouncements by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir about creating an Islamic state governed by Shariah law have led thousands of Christians living in North Sudan to flee to the south. Some representatives of the millions of Christians who live in North Sudan have expressed concern that religious minorities in the north will become the targets for violence if these political changes occur.
We at the Institute are certainly not alone in insisting that this referendum not devolve into a zero-sum game, in which peace is brought to some and injustice to others. Our hopes for peace are buoyed because this overwhelming democratic demand for independence was made by the Sudanese diaspora worldwide. Displaced refugees in neighboring countries, asylees, former resettled refugees, and residents in North and South Sudan cast their votes together.