As Southern Sudan gears up for a week-long independence referendum starting on Sunday that could split Africa’s largest country in two, the United Nations is ramping up its multiple roles, from monitoring the vote to providing aid to returning southerners to preparing options for a worst-case scenario, however unlikely, of renewed warfare.
In a referendum eve statement today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the National Government and the Southern Sudanese regional authorities for their efforts to ensure that the vote is held as scheduled in an atmosphere of peace and cooperation.
In a separate report to the Security Council on the nearly 10,000-strong UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), set up in 2005 to support a peace agreement that ended 20 years of war between North and South Sudan, culminating in next week’s vote, Mr. Ban hails the conciliatory statements by both sides to respect the outcome as well as progress made on post-referendum arrangements.
But he also warns of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of renewed conflict, noting that the UN has prepared contingency plans for the period up to June, with a possible reinforcement of UNMIS to prevent any deterioration in security.
“In the unlikely event that the referendum leads to large-scale violence, approximately 2.8 million people could be internally displaced and another 3.2 million affected by breakdowns in trade and social service delivery,” he writes. “In this scenario, as much as $63 million might be required to provide emergency assistance to those in need.”
UNMIS has already increased its presence in hot spots, particularly in the oil-rich Abyei region, which was meant to hold a concurrent referendum on whether to join the North or South, but agreement on the modalities for such a vote has not been reached.
“The continuing stalemate over Abyei and the Abyei referendum is a cause for alarm,” Mr. Ban stresses, noting that tensions are building up on the ground and political sensitivities and historical complexities make it difficult for either party to consider options that may be seen as concessions by their constituents.
“In this charged environment, any major security incident could be damaging for the last stages of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process,” he adds, referring to the 2005 accord that ended the civil war.
UN humanitarian agencies are also preparing for all eventualities. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has pre-positioned enough food in more than 100 strategic locations to feed 1 million people for six months. This is in preparation for a potential influx of returnees to a newly independent state and the possibility that people will be displaced.
Meanwhile, by barges and buses laden with beds, mattresses, sofas, chairs, tables, cooking utensils, corrugated iron sheeting, radios, TV sets, fridges and small generators, southern Sudanese are already returning at the rate of 2,000 a day, bringing the total already to 120,000.
“We anticipate that many more will return in the coming months following the referendum,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today. “Many of the returnees who have lived in the North for years say they have left for fear of the unknown and the opportunity to start afresh in their native South.”
With 1.5 million to 2 million southerners at present living in the north, Mr. Ban stresses in his report the need to work out post-referendum citizenship, residency and labour issues.
“We are concerned about the spectre of a significant number of southerners in the north having uncertain citizen status, possibly becoming stateless,” said UNHCR.
At referendum ground zero, a three-member UN panel headed by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa will travel around the country to monitor the 9-15 January polling and the counting and aggregation of results. They will also meet with relevant officials.
Mr. Ban’s report is suffused with the historic dimensions of the referendum. “The coming weeks will determine the future of the Sudan for decades to come. The determination of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to sustain peace, stability and coexistence will be the deciding factor in setting that course,” he writes.
“The United Nations and the international community must continue to stand firmly behind their commitment to support the parties, the relevant institutions, and the Sudanese people through this process and beyond,” he adds, calling on the parties to agree on key post-referendum issues, including wealth-sharing, the management of assets and debts, citizenship and border security arrangements in order to ensure “a soft landing.”
He stresses that the presence of UN troops alone will not be enough to prevent a return to war, should widespread hostilities erupt. “Only a demonstrated commitment by the parties to refrain from inflammatory statements, uphold the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ceasefire mechanisms and engage in dialogue to settle differences will succeed in maintaining peace,” he declares.
“As events in the early days of 2011 will be unique in the history of the Sudan, I urge all partners to intensify their efforts and provide support to all Sudanese in order to ensure the successful holding of the referendum and respect the choice made by the people by endorsing and implementing its outcome.”