The people of south Sudan began voting January 9 on a referendum to separate from the north. Polls will remain open until January 15, with the final results announced February 6 at the earliest. The electoral law's requirement that 60 percent of registered voters participate will likely be easily met. Though there are already reports of violence involving Khartoum's soldiers and southern civilians, and there will probably be irregularities, the margin of votes favoring independence will be so huge there will be little doubt as to the intention of the southern Sudanese. In the week before the referendum, Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, stated publicly that he would abide by the results. But as the Cote d'Ivoire standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara reminds, a credible vote does not always resolve the underlying issues.
South Sudan has been semi-autonomous since 2005's internationally brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended a twenty-year civil war between north and south that had acquired a religious and ethnic coloration and killed an estimated two million people, mostly southerners, and displaced an additional four million. South Sudan now has an organized government based in Juba derived from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) that led the south during the civil war.
The many unresolved issues between the north and a fully independent south include division of the oil revenue, citizenship, and the boundary between the two states. The CPA anticipated such issues being negotiated in the run-up to the referendum. That did not happen, however, with Khartoum dragging its feet and the south unwilling to jeopardize the January 9 start date for the referendum.
The oil-rich province of Abyei has already proven to be a flashpoint and will likely continue to be. Here, as in other troubled parts of Africa, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries coincide, and there is space for outsiders to stir the pot. Both northern and southern politicians claim the territory, an area where nomadic pastoralists, the Messiria, and farmers, the Ngok Dinka, collide. The former are predominately Muslim with ties to Khartoum; the latter are Christians and Animists who look to Juba. The International Tribunal at The Hague divided the province, but al-Bashir has not accepted its judgment, and some southern politicians are insisting the entire province should become part of southern Sudan.
Even if he shows good faith over the referendum, al-Bashir will need to watch his back in Khartoum against forces upset with the apparent softening of his stance. Just before the referendum, the Sudanese Comprehensive Conference, an umbrella of opposition parties to al-Bashir's ruling National Congress, publicly accused the president of failing to maintain national unity. International Muslim opinion will also impact Khartoum's response to south Sudan's secession. Thus far, however, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have been largely silent.
Despite the challenges, a credible referendum vote will be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration, which has been heavily committed to supporting the CPA. Looking ahead, the unresolved issues will require the administration to continue its intense engagement to manage the potential flashpoints that could reverse the significant progress that has been made. Already there are reports that over a hundred thousand southerners living in the north are trekking south, some out of fear of the unknown and others with enthusiasm for their new homeland. But the Juba government is ill-equipped to meet their needs for food, water, and shelter. It is likely that the international community led by the United States will be required to respond to forestall a humanitarian disaster.