In the last few years Southern Sudan has continued to suffer for the endemic marginalization of the North. It has suffered in the Southerners who live in the North, particularly in Khartoum, where they are considered second-rate citizens. It has also suffered at the hands of its own administrators, who have misused the sometimes huge resources at their disposal.
As the referendum approaches to give the last word on the juridical status of the South, many people fear a return of the hostilities. In the last few years Sudan has never been really in peace. Thee war in Darfur has been non-stop, just as the violence against other ethnic minorities and the implementation of marginalization policies by the central government. Also, tensions among the Arabized peoples of the North, competing for the pastures lying along the Southern border, have been used cunningly. The marking of the border, especially near Abyei, the area featuring the largest oilfields, has been slow, just as the registration of those having the right to vote.
Yet, despite hugely laborious efforts to organize a popular consultation in a territory that is one of the most depressed in the Continent, with uncommon infra-structural difficulties, the referendum was virtually violence-free. Some clashes between Misserya and Dinka shepherds were reported to have caused a score of deaths but these cases were restricted to few areas only.
Some days before voting, the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir had declared that the independence of the South would have been a mistake that would have destabilized the region. The Southern leader Salva Kiir had replied that the war wasn’t in sight and that the South would be able to take up its responsibilities for growth and development. This referendum, he had explained, would be «not the end of the journey, but the beginning». Well over 60% of those with the right to vote placed their papers in the ballot box and the examination followed immediately. The official results will not be announced before mid-February but there is little doubt: the South wants independence.
Many are opposed to splitting the largest African Country. Northern Sudan sees the disappearance of an immense reserve of raw materials, not just oil but also diamonds, minerals and water: the nearly 50-year-long war between North and South was never a religious conflict but a struggle for control over resources; Egypt fears the entry of a new Country along the course of the Nile and does not want to share control of its water, of which it has an extreme need. Just before the referendum also the Muslim Brothers had manifested their opposition, perceiving the independence of the South as a hindrance to their project of turning Africa into an Islamic continent.
However, there are also those who back the autonomy of the South. Kenya has sent over a large group of executives to help the emerging governmental administration train new directors. Uganda has not hidden its support to the creation of a new State likely to open up towards the South of the Continent. Even China, the great friend of the North, who has been buying oil and other materials from Sudan for years and providing in turn weapons and technology, has declared to be pro-Southern Sudan independence. It seems, in fact, that China would back the construction of a new oil pipeline connecting Southern Sudan’s oil fields to Lamu, in Northern Kenya -- an extraordinary financial investment that no one would want to endanger by a renewed local conflict.
Nevertheless, an independent South is worrying to many also because it could represent a dangerous precedent for other requests for independence elsewhere in Africa. On achieving home rule about 50 years ago, the African Countries decided to leave the colonial borders intact in order to avoid being crushed by too many local claims and internal divisions. A cautious decision in many ways but one doing history no justice: the war for the independence of Eritrea is an example. But there are many other hot spots, from Cabinda to Casamance, from Great Somalia to longed-for Oromia. Sudan had been held together by a myopic colonial power, an Anglo-Egyptian condominium that rejected Southern requests for the political and economic autonomy the South was claiming to have a right to as early as then.
Abiding by the agreements, the independence of Southern Sudan should be legally sanctioned in July, six months after its official announcement; that is, the time needed for concluding the separation procedure. In the meantime, the South will have to prepare for the future: it is necessary to build roads and other infrastructures for communication, to set up an educational system, base schools, professional colleges for the young people who were unable to get an adequate formation during the war years. The Churches, especially the Catholic Church, have invested in local structures or supported university students abroad but they have only reached a minority.
Now the real challenge is in the hands of leader Salva Kiir: that is, whether he is able to guide Southern Sudan to face the new challenges, by forming a government team of people able to fight this last, bloodless, battle.