The week-long independence referendum in South Sudan passed its half-way mark today with a continued large turnout, and a United Nations monitor said there should be no need to extend the vote, which could split Africa’s largest country in two.
The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) cited figures released by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) showing that 46 per cent of the electorate in southern Sudan, where the vast majority of the nearly four million eligible voters live, cast their ballots in the first two days of the seven-day poll – the culmination of the 2005 peace agreement that ended 20 years of war between the country’s north and south.
Sixty per cent of the electorate have to vote for the outcome to be valid. In northern Sudan and abroad, where several hundred thousand southerners are also eligible to vote, the SSRC reported a 25 per cent turnout for the first two days.
The chairman of the UN panel tasked with monitoring the referendum, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, told the UNMIS-backed Radio Miraya that at the current pace of voting, since it began on 9 January, “there should be no cause for extension” beyond the scheduled final day on Saturday, 15 January.
The relatively high turnout so far is an indication that “there were many people looking for an opportunity, such as this referendum has given them, to give expression to their will about the future or the government relationships in their country,” Mr. Mkapa said, adding, “I think in the south there is no doubt that there was a lot of pent-up feeling, a great expectation that the day would come. And that day having come, they have responded to it extremely enthusiastically.”
According to the SSRC, preliminary results are expected to be announced by 2 February and, depending on whether appeals are submitted to courts or not, the final result on whether the country’s south secedes and becomes the UN’s 193rd Member State or remains part of a united Sudan will be declared on 7 or 14 February.
If the South votes for independence, the two sides have until the end of June to resolve complex issues affecting the two, according to the 2005 peace agreement, which ended a civil war that killed some two million people and drove an estimated 4.5 million others from their homes. The issues include post-referendum citizenship, residency and labour matters, wealth-sharing, demarcating borders and the future of the oil-rich Abyei region.
Abyei, which straddles northern and southern Sudan, was meant to hold a referendum on whether to join the North or South concurrent with the independence referendum but agreement on some of the details on how to proceed with that vote was not reached in time. In his most recent report on UNMIS, Mr. Ban cited the continuing stalemate as “a cause for alarm” and potential hotspot for renewed conflict.
Already this week, the nearly 11,000-strong UNMIS intensified its peacekeeping patrols in the region after reports that at least 36 people had been killed in clashes between Arab nomads linked to the North and Dinka farmers linked to the South. The mission is on standby to reinforce its presence if needed and it is engaging all concerned to defuse tensions and prevent a further escalation.
In a report on Sudan last month, Mr. Ban also noted that tensions were building up on the ground in Abyei and political sensitivities and historical complexities made it difficult for either party to consider options that could 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 said, referring to the 2005 accord, and he also warned of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of renewed conflict.
“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 said. “In this scenario, as much as $63 million might be required to provide emergency assistance to those in need.”
Today however, the monitoring panel’s chairman, Mr. Mkapa, looked toward a brighter future.
“If as is likely, the observers and the panel decide that the process has gone well, and therefore the outcome is credible, whatever that outcome, I hope that the people of Sudan, the people of the region, and the international community as a whole, will accept that outcome, as a foundation for working new relationships between them and the new Sudan,” he said.