The polls are closed, the votes have been counted and the final results are in: Africa will soon see the founding of a new country. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Southern Sudanese citizens voted for South Sudan to become independent in the January 9-15 referendum (98.83 %). The referendum was a cornerstone of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the decades-long civil war between North and South Sudan; its completion, however, marks not the end of the peace process but the beginning of a new chapter in Sudanese history – with new opportunities and new challenges.
In his statement congratulating all parties on the completion of a peaceful referendum process, President Obama pledged to recognize Southern Sudan when it claims independence in July 2011, as well as to work with both Sudanese and Southern Sudanese leaders “to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to independence.” That transition is almost certainly going to be a challenge – major post-referendum issues such as border demarcation, oil wealth-sharing agreements and the status of contentious territory such as Abyei remain outstanding.
Northern Sudan loses quite a bit when Southern Sudan becomes independent – perhaps most importantly, a great deal of its oil wealth and, as such, a vast percentage of its economy, is about to disappear. The referendum was completed peacefully in part because of promises by the US to begin the process of removing Sudan from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. That promise, however distasteful, must be fulfilled if any future negotiations are to have credibility. We cannot, however, allow the Sudanese regime to remain unaccountable for crimes in Darfur or allow it a free pass for human rights violations in the also-new country that will be North Sudan.
Protests in the North of Sudan, for example, heated up in early February in the context of regime-toppling protests in Tunisia and regime-shaking (at least so far) protests in Egypt. Hundreds of youth activists took to the streets and were met with tear-gas, beatings and violence by state security forces. More than 100 young activists were arrested and one died from his injuries. Many northerners are concerned about public remarks by Sudanese President Bashir that he intends to create an Islamic state in Northern Sudan governed by Shari’ah law. As scholar and activist Bec Hamilton recently wrote in the New York Times:
The southern case against the N.C.P.’s [National Congress Party – the ruling party in Sudan] vision of Sudan is well understood. Less appreciated are the longstanding efforts of many northerners to also reject the imposition of this unitary Islamic-Arab identity on “our beautiful Sudan.” For them, the south of the country has been a counterweight.
As we know, the Sudanese government has also stepped up its campaign in Darfur, using the distraction of the international community during the referendum process to escalate attacks against civilians there. As reported by NPR, “over 40,000 people were newly displaced in December alone because of fighting between rebel and government forces, both of whom, Human Rights Watch reports, have been targeting civilians based on their ethnicity.” All the more reason to step up our public advocacy efforts and shine a spotlight on what’s happening in Darfur – like at the Walk to End Genocide, just for example!