A Peaceful Referendum in Sudan- too much to hope for?

Published: 05 January 2011


Today Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir visited the southern capital of Juba ahead of a referendum to decide whether the south will split and form Africa's newest state. However, in this country beset by conflict and poverty, the scene appears to have been peaceful, even described as 'carnivalesque' by a BBC World Service correspondent at the scene. 

Several thousand people waved flags and banners, many illustrated with an open palm, the symbol of the separation movement. The message to Bashir was clear: the south want to break away. Four million have registered to vote in the referendum.

The vote, which will take place on Sunday, was mandated in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and ended the last of a series of civil wars between the north and south.

Mr Bashir said: "I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides."

However, despite his peaceful message, is a referendum without violence too much to hope for?

There are worrying issues to consider even before the final vote is counted. At least 60% of registered voters must take part for the results to be valid, but with low literacy and a hazy voting history, this may be more difficult to achieve than a simple majority.

The problems provoked by families who fled war in the south returning in their thousands to vote in the referendum range from hunger and disease to lack of health facilities, according to Save the Children. Facilities are already stretched to their limit and poverty-stricken families are being forced to accommodate dozens of extended family members. (see the BBC's photo gallery here)

If the vote grants the south its independence, these problems continue, as after years of warfare and deprivation the country (which will be larger than Germany and France combined) has few roads and scarcely enough schools or health services for its existing population.

The issue of boundaries- which is central to the referendum itself- originally saw the country divided haphazardly by colonial powers with little consideration to cultural or physical reality. Whilst the north is arid desert, southern Sudan is full of jungles and swamps. Cultural differences have exacerbated tensions as most northerners are Arabic-speaking Muslims, while the South is populated by Christians and various ethnic groups.

Perhaps the greatest threat to a peaceful referendum may come as the northern government struggles to keep as much of the oil-rich south as it can. One area in particular- Abyei- remains a grey area and will be subject to a separate vote later in the year on which country to join.

And equally terrifying, Mr Bashir has stated that if the divide occurs, the constitution in the north would be changed, making Islam the only religion, Sharia the only law and Arabic the only official language.

Such threats are a serious worry to non-Muslim Sudanese already inhabiting the north, and raise concerns amongst human rights campaigners, who have already accused Sudanese police in the north of committing atrocities in the name of Sharia law.

How seriously can we be expected to take a president who has an outstanding International Criminal Court warrant due to reasonable grounds to believe him responsible for three counts of genocide committed against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups?

We can only hope that a peaceful referendum and the genuine support of President Bashir may dull the memories of slaughter and abuse in Darfur, and of a scarcely ended civil war, that remain so vivid in the memories of both his nation and the world media.