Dispelling the Myths About Sudan's Referendum

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If Southern Sudan votes to secede on Sunday it will form the world's newest country.

Not one, but two new countries will be formed on Jan. 9 should the South vote to secede: the Northern state of Sudan and Southern Sudan. We know what the South will look like in the future because it has been semi-autonomous for six years now since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ending the North-South War was signed by both sides in January 2005. Under that agreement the Government of Southern Sudan was formed with its capital in Juba, and funded by 50 percent of the country's oil revenue. While 75 percent of the oil production is in the South, the oil pipeline, refineries and port facilities to ship the oil are in the North; thus both are mutually dependent on each other for their own survival, even if they are historical enemies.

The internal dynamics of the North will be determined by the direction the Bashir government takes over the next six months. All the wealth and resources of the country have been concentrated in the center of the country, while marginalized areas of the periphery have historically suffered poverty, underdevelopment and neglect. Clashes over race, tribe, religion and culture destabilized the country since independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956. Of the old Sudan 55 percent has been ethnically and linguistically African, 45 percent culturally Arab, with 70 percent of the people being Muslim and 30 percent Christian. Three Arab tribes in the Nile River Valley - which make up 5.4 percent of the population - have maintained a monopoly of political and economic power in the country for two centuries through a policy of forced Arabization and Islamization which has been resisted by the 55 percent African and 30 percent Christian populations. In the new state of Northern Sudan the Arabs will make up 55 percent of the population and will no longer be a minority. How they act toward the 45 percent the remaining African Sudanese in the North will determine its future.

Northern Sudan will be more stable than an independent South.

Sudan is one of the largest countries in the world - the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River - with the vast Nile River water basin, large oil and mineral reserves, luxuriant soils and enormous wild game herds. More than 80 percent of these resources however are in the South; which the North will lose should the South choose to secede. Many Islamist and Arab nationalists in the North are now aggressively criticizing President Bashir and his party for agreeing to the CPA. They are asking what the North is getting in exchange for losing 80 percent of its resources.

The fear in Khartoum, the current capital city, is that other regions of the North will try to secede following Southern secession. In the past, successive Khartoum governments - even some democratically elected - have used three tactics to keep the country together: they have bought the support of tribes and elites through jobs and patronage, pitted their internal adversaries against each other and used brutal military force and repression to crush rebellions and political opposition. These tactics no longer work. Thus the centrifugal forces pulling the country apart may now accelerate with the departure of the South, risking the potential dissolution of the Northern Sudanese state, making the new Northern state more unstable as a state than the South will be.

Southern Sudan will be a failed state at birth should it vote to secede.

The South has made remarkable progress over the past six years, but indeed faces many challenges: it will be born a fragile, not a failed state. Six years ago Juba, the Southern capital, had 100,000 people, and now has 1.2 million: main streets have been paved, new electrical lines installed, new colleges and universities opened and government ministries rebuilt.

Over 7,000 new business have registered and are doing business in the South; 175 small hotels have been built, whereas there were just two only three years ago. Over 300,000 Southerners have cell phones, whereas none had them six years ago. The southern economy is booming, fueled by Southern free market policies and oil revenues. This prosperity is unevenly distributed: it has not yet reached the rural areas, which, though at peace, still face the challenges of poverty and underdevelopment. The South is not rebuilding a war torn state, but building something that did not exist before and so institutions are weak, accountability systems non-existent and corruption a major problem.

More than four million Southerners died in two civil wars in the South since 1956, many of these deaths caused by ethnic fighting between Southern tribes, where one side or the other was being armed and equipped by successive governments in Khartoum to carry out their strategy of divide and conquer. While the South is now united and its leadership is trying to be inclusive and mediate disputes instead of encouraging them, ethnic rivalries could destabilize the South in the future if its leaders are not careful.

The future of Northern and Southern Sudan will be principally determined by how firm a stand the international community takes on the referendum.

Despite the demands of Western advocacy groups, the international community has limited influence over Sudan's future. More U.S. economic sanctions demanded by these groups against the North - should Khartoum try to stop the referendum - will have little or no impact, given that every conceivable sanction is already in place. Most Western businesses have left the country and been replaced by Arab and Asian investors who are relatively immune from Western influence and scrutiny.

The security of the new Southern state formed after January 9 will be determined by the strength of the Southern military which has more than 125,000 highly motivated troops with extensive combat experience. While the North's military has been weakened by successive purges by Khartoum to avoid a coup, it does have air superiority which could be used to threaten the South in the future unless the United States provides security guarantees, particularly air defense systems, which the Obama administration has not yet been willing to do. The Obama administration has kept in place the modest $35 million a year U.S. government military assistance program to the South, started by the Bush administration, to transform the Southern rebel army into a conventional force capable of maintaining a military balance of power and protecting the South from any potential Northern adventurism. That program should be substantially expanded if the South votes for independence.

President Bashir, under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur, is the chief obstacle to an independent South and peace in Darfur.

President Bashir, under indictment for war crimes in Darfur by the ICC, is the chief supporter of the CPA in the North with Vice President Ali Osman Taha, who negotiated the agreement with the Southerners. Bashir is proud of the peace agreement and has been making constructive public statements about the North's willingness to accept the outcome of referendum, develop a constructive long term economic relationship with the South and ensure that the rights of Southerners who remain in the North will be protected after Southern Independence.

Bashir is under heavy attack by other Arab countries opposed to Southern secession and from Northern Sudanese nationalists and fundamentalist Islamists who opposed the CPA from the start. The Obama administration has offered improved U.S. relations with Northern Sudan, a reduction of economic sanctions and removal from the list of state sponsored terrorism should Khartoum play a constructive role with a Darfur peace agreement and Southern independence. This offer has given Bashir a defense for what he has won for the North in exchange for Southern independence.

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