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World

Sudan balances between war and peace as country votes on secession

People in Southern Sudan have been voting on a landmark referendum on independence from the north. The week-long voting process is widely expected to split Africa's largest country in two.

A Sudanese rebel with AK-47 standing by some children

The vote could bring full peace or a new descent into conflict

On the penultimate day of voting, a senior Southern Sudan official said the 60 percent threshold for the vote to be valid had been passed. A spokesman for the referendum commission later confirmed that the vote had exceed the 60 percent threshold. Preliminary results are expected to be announced on February 1.

Almost six years have passed since the the 20-year-long civil war in Sudan, which left at least two million people dead, ended with a peace deal being signed between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south.

While many observers hope that the referendum will be the final act in the peaceful resolution of the north-south rivalry which decimated Sudan's population and destabilized much of the region, others fear that splitting the country in two could plunge parts of Sudan once more into a state of war.

"UN officials are cautiously optimistic that the immediate aftermath of the referendum will be peaceful," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "But there are very serious concerns that the South, which has been plagued by low-level violence between different ethnic groups and bandits, will implode after independence. That could tempt the North to intervene in contested areas."

More southerners than northerners had registered to vote in the referendum, with nearly four million southern Sudanese, including those in the Diaspora, ready to cast their ballots in favor of independence. Less than 200,000 northern Sudanese were reportedly registered with many fearing reprisals should the south succeed in its bid for secession.

The referendum and its consequences will be watched closely by the international community. After hearing from observers on the ground, the United States remained optimistic that the referendum would pass off peacefully and without interference, with the US State Department praising the credibility of the registration process.

However, while the south's population is clear on where it stands, the issue of whether independence will be granted even if the vote goes that way remains contentious. There are a number of key issues which remain unresolved ahead of the ballot, including border demarcation, the fate of the disputed oil region of Abyei, and the sharing of oil revenues. Should any of these become more than just debating points, there is a real concern that these issues could set off new confrontations in the wake of the vote.

Connected issues present north and south with potential pitfalls

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

Al-Bashir and his southern counterparts face obstacles

Ahead of the referendum, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir visited Juba, the capital of autonomous Southern Sudan, to address these and other divisive issues with southern leaders. Despite the positive noises being made by both sides - al-Bashir has stated that "peace is our ultimate goal" - it remains to be seen whether any agreements made during the run-up to the vote will be reneged upon in the light of independence.

Dr. Rolf Hofmeier from the Institute of African Affairs at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg does not foresee a full-scale war, but believes there is a strong possibility of violence along the disputed North-South border and attempts by both sides to occupy most of the oil-production areas in the Abyei region.

"The whole issue of the future sharing of oil revenues seems to me to be the most uncertain," Dr. Hofmeier told Deutsche Welle. "What leverage does the South really have to get a fair share, as long as it does not have a separate pipeline for exporting the oil via Kenya? This is planned, but even at best the project is still a long way off and by no means a short-term alternative."

Even if the south peacefully secedes from the north, there remains a danger that northern Sudanese opposition parties will instigate some form of regime change to oust al-Bashir once the referendum is over. Despite claims that non-violent means were being discussed, there remains a fear that accused war crimes suspect al-Bashir won't go without a fight.

Northern Sudanese opposition looking to unseat al-Bashir

Islamist opposition leader Hassan Turabi

Al-Turabi said Sudan's people could force regime change

Islamist opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi told reporters that peaceful preparations had been made to attempt to topple al-Bashir's regime which stands accused of rigging the April elections which returned the president to power.

A change of government will come "not with weapons but with the people," al-Turabi, a former mentor of the president and now his fiercest opponent who was once jailed for expressing criticism, said, adding that "civil society has the ability to overthrow the regime peacefully."

Al-Turabi dismissed talk of a coup saying that "all the Sudanese people now hate" such an option. However, the opposition "will either force the ruling authorities to make concessions or will make the national opposition movement push the people to a rebellion," he added.

"The chances for removing al-Bashir in the North are extremely difficult to assess," said Hofmeier. "It seems that he is still fairly well entrenched with support from the military and business circles from the very center of the North, but at the same time there might be growing popular unrest once everybody realises that the South has really seceded, which up to now has only been a vague notion."

President's future thrown into doubt by state's upheaval

Such a scenario, with its possibilities of insurrection in the north, also raises questions about al-Bashir's future in regard to the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for his arrest on charges of war crimes and genocide carried out in Sudan's restive Darfur province.

However, Richard Gowan believes that the chances of al-Bashir ever facing the ICC remain very slim.

"Many African and Western governments would be happy to let al-Bashir avoid trial if he contributes to an orderly transition in South Sudan," he said.

Region's stability hinges on the effects of splintering Sudan

Sudanese rebels

Instability and circumstance will make further secession difficult

If the south succeeds in its bid for independence as expected, there has been some talk in Sudan that the decision may lead to other areas of Sudan, such as Darfur and the east of the country, following suit. However, Dr. Hofmeier believes that the special circumstances enjoyed by the south are lacking in other areas of the country.

"The Eastern Region appears to have been largely pacified in recent years so I don't really foresee secession there," said Hofmeier. "Also Darfur, for reasons of geography, lacks resource endowment and ethnic composition, so it seems to have fewer chances for a viable independence than the South. I can't see such a situation being repeated in Darfur."

Even if the wave of secession ends with the south, independence may still have a catastrophic effect on other areas of Sudan.

"Darfur's rebels groups have splintered into so many factions that they'll struggle to unite and take advantage of events in South Sudan," Richard Gowan said. "If anything, the South's secession may encourage Khartoum to try and finish off the resistance in Darfur once and for all. A successful campaign in Darfur would underline that al-Bashir isn't finished."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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