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Southern Sudan looks toward referendum on independence. Many hope for divorce from Khartoum.
A senior SPLM official noted in a press conference during the polls that “the elections are a very good and important lesson for us [the SPLM].” The official then explained how she feels that the supposedly neutral National Electoral Commission is guilty of “negligence” and that many of the technical difficulties witnessed during the polling period could have been corrected earlier “if they had really cared.”
It is a positive sign that the SPLM seems to be wising up to the fact that their “peace partner” in Khartoum will likely attempt a repeat performance of the rigging, gerrymandering and political repression that has characterized the lengthy electoral process. But this realization is not a guarantee that either party will opt out of political hijinx if they see it as necessary to create their desired outcome.
The southern referendum will be considerably less complex than the elections. Instead of casting their vote on 12 ballots, southerners will be making just one decision: for “unity” or “separation” of Sudan. Although the referendum is less technically challenging, the stakes of this looming vote are undeniably higher not only for southerners, but for Sudan’s neighbors and for the international community writ large; the birth of a new nation is never a simple affair, and a new state in the volatile Horn of Africa region poses challenges no matter how peaceful the process.
The international community, particularly the United Nations Mission in Sudan, initially had grand plans for rapid response capabilities and contingency planning to mitigate instability around the elections. Some, but by no means all, of these initiatives materialized.
While the Sudanese people deserve credit for showing their desire to embrace democratic and peaceful political processes, it would be unrealistic to assume that the referendum will come off peacefully if any of the “technical difficulties” of the elections occur during the referendum and thus prevent southerners from participating in their vote on independence.
With so little time before the Sudanese return to the polls, now is not the time for the international community to cool its rhetorical heels. Preparation, coordination, and conditional pressures from actors such as the Obama administration and the African Union are needed to help Sudan lay the groundwork for a peaceful and credible referendum next year.
Maggie Fick is based in Juba, Sudan, as a field researcher for the Enough Project.