In its December 19, 2009 issue, The Economist magazine reported a rare bit of “good news” from Sudan: the country’s ruling party and the former rebels of the south had agreed upon provisions for the scheduled 2011 referendum that will supposedly allow the south to secede. According to the agreement, Southern Sudan will indeed become an independent country if a majority of its people so vote, providing that the turnout is at least 60 percent. Although the 2011 independence referendum has been planned ever since a 2005 autonomy accord ended the rebellion of the south, informed observers remain skeptical. Southern Sudan, after all, has huge oil reserves that the Khartoum government covets; independence for the south, moreover, could set a dangerous precedent for other restive Sudanese regions, such as Darfur and potentially even the Nuba Hills and the Red Sea coast.
Sure enough, several weeks later the mid-December accord began to fray as the government unilaterally declared that southern Sudanese living in the north (and hence generally assumed to be less supportive of independence) would be able to vote. Southern Sudan has also witnessed a recent surge of ethnic violence that has displaced some 250,000 in 2009 alone, as well as incursions by Uganda’s infamously destructive Lord’s Resistance Army. Some Southern Sudanese think that much of this violence has been instigated by the government in order to undermine the south’s bid for independence.
But regardless of the current troubles, the insistence on a 60 percent turnout in the referendum is problematic by itself, as no one knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, reside in Southern Sudan. A 2008 census pegged the region’s population at 8.26 million, a figure that was rejected as absurdly low by the Southern Sudanese parliament. Some sources place the region’s population as high as 15 million. All that is certain is how little is known about Southern Sudan; in 2007, for example, conservationists were staggered when aerial surveys revealed the existence of vast herds of antelopes and other animals (including some 8,000 elephants) in an area widely thought to be lacking in wildlife.
Regardless of any “good news” coming out of Southern Sudan, the referendum scheduled for 2011 is not likely to be a peaceful affair. Watch for continuing strife in Southern Sudan and elsewhere in the country.