by Sarah Juster:

“Secession is like a divorce. It is not a sweet idea,” said Professor Amal Fadlalla, who researches Sudanese issues at the University of Michigan. Though she may be correct, secession is a strong possibility for Southern Sudan. On January 9th, Sudan’s semi-autonomous South will vote in a referendum on whether to secede from the North. The referendum is part of a five-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 after 39 years of civil war between the predominantly Muslim Arab North and Christian African South.

“The last five years under the CPA have been a political nightmare,” said Fadlalla. In addition to the referendum, the CPA called for national elections, which were held in April, several months behind schedule. Most Sudanese believe that they were rigged. “The ballots were stuffed with the wrong votes. There’s even a video on You-Tube showing this,” said Yahia Hassan, a Yale freshman and the grandson of two chairmen of separate factions within the leading Northern UMMA opposition party. “What wasn’t expected was Northern control over elections.” Along with failed collaboration between Northern and Southern opposition parties, these questionable elections led to an easy victory for current dictator Omar Al-Bashir and set the stage for conflict over the upcoming referendum.

Southern Sudanese police recruits at a meeting on referendum security. (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

The Southern coalition for secession is strong. Benjamin Machar, a “Lost Boy” who fled Southern Sudan as a young boy during the war and eventually relocated to the United States, said that for his family and others in the South, emotions are running high. “After a half century of war, many Southerners are now 50 to 60 years old. They were raised during the war and brought up their children during war. They are tired of war. They want to actually start living like other Africans.” Although Hassan would prefer an alternative to Southern secession, he said that if he were a Southern voter, he would opt “to secede after everything they have been through. I would not want to be part of a country whose president is wanted internationally for crimes, especially when they have the resources and capability to do what they want.”

Northerners, too, see secession in a negative light. Southerners living in the North—estimates put the number between one and three million—do not want to be cut off from family or business ties. Fadlalla noted that especially in Northern cities, “many people are out of touch with disparities and think that the North and South can just unite. They also feel they will lose the ruling Southern People’s Liberation Movement as an ally.”

Considering that Bashir’s government has hardly begun preparations for the referendum, it is unlikely that a Southern vote for independence will lead to a clean split from the North. At worst, the referendum will spark a full-blown civil war. Oil, borders, and political leadership are all at stake in the dispute between the north and south. Sudan’s oil is primarily drilled in the South, yet most of it is controlled and exported by the North for huge revenues. The issue of border demarcation is also pivotal, especially in the oil rich area of Abyei on the North-South border, where residents will choose to join either the North or the South in the referendum.

There is also potential for conflict within the South between the various political parties. Machar believes that the government will work to “divide and rule by stirring conflict between these groups, because the North maintains power when it is at war.” To mitigate the violence that could come of this approach, the president of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, Salva Kiir, has been reaching out to other Southern leaders to try to solidify a coalition before the referendum. According to Hassan, Kiir’s coalition “is a smart move, because if Southern parties get together to form a coalition, this would remove the threat of a lot of tribal conflict.” Yet only with the referendum will the success —(or failure—) of this move become clear.

When Hillary Clinton labeled the referendum “a ticking time bomb” in her speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in September, she was correct. The potential for conflict is too great under a government that, as Hassan said, “does not seem to care if violence breaks out.” For now, only one thing is sure: This year will be a determinate one in Sudan’s complicated and war-torn history.

Sarah Juster ’14 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at sarah.juster@yale.edu.