Editor's update: Six people were killed in clashes between rebel militias and South Sudan's army on Friday and Saturday, a day before the referendum vote. The attacks cast a shadow over celebrations in other parts of the south — attended by George Clooney and Jimmy Carter.
JUBA, South Sudan — Africa’s biggest country is entering a critical moment in its history with a referendum starting on Sunday that is likely to see Sudan split in two, giving birth to the world’s newest state.
Fears of a resumption of the long and deadly civil wars that have blighted Sudan’s post-independence era were dampened this week by some conciliatory rhetoric from a surprising source: Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Bashir heads an Islamist regime in Khartoum and is wildly unpopular in the mostly Christian South where he prosecuted a war characterized by indiscriminate aerial bombardments and scorched earth raids by Arab militias.
Yet during a rare visit to Juba, the southern capital-in-waiting, in the days before Sunday’s referendum on self-determination for the South he said he would accept partition if that is the will of the southern people, 3.9 million of whom have registered to vote.
“Imposing unity by force doesn’t work,” Bashir said in a speech. “We want unity between the North and the South but this doesn’t mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen.”
Bashir said Khartoum is ready to recognize and support an independent South, saying, “The benefit we get from unity, we can also get it from two separate states.”
“I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” he added. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.”
The president will have been left in little doubt as to whether people will choose the single raised palm that represents separation or the clasped hands of unity: In Juba towering billboards declare the lone hand to be the symbol of “dignity,” “development” and “separation.”
On Friday, hundreds paraded through Juba’s streets dancing behind a marching band and wearing T-shirts reading, “We are going.”
“Our parents and grandparents fought and died so that we could vote, so that we could be on our own, free of the Arabs,” said Moses Duku, a 26-year-old motorbike taxi driver who was raised in neighboring Uganda after his parents fled the war. “Growing up I never dreamed this day would come but it is here, now.”
The referendum vote that begins this Sunday and is scheduled to last for a week was enshrined in an internationally-brokered peace deal in 2005 that ended one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflicts fought over resources, religion and ethnicity.
During more than two decades of war 2 million people died and 4 million more fled their homes to escape the fighting.
Bashir’s recent conciliatory comments towards his former enemies in the South mark an abrupt turnaround that will help dampen fears of a return to widespread conflict.
In September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as “a ticking time bomb” but last weekend a State Department spokesman said he was now “optimistic” about the coming referendum.
The reason for Bashir’s visit to Juba this week was to discuss with southern leader Salva Kiir some of the many issues that have not been resolved during the six years between the peace deal and Sunday’s referendum.
Top of the list is how to share Sudan’s estimated 6 billion barrels of oil, a bounty that analysts say divides, but may also unite the two parties.
Khartoum and Juba both rely on revenues from the 500,000 barrels of crude a day that Sudan pumps. Four-fifths of that oil comes from southern fields close to the border, but all the pipelines head north so for either side to realize the value of the resource they must work together.
“Oil is the biggest disincentive to conflict because they need each other,” said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. Under the peace deal oil revenues have, at least on paper, been evenly shared but it is unclear what will happen after independence.
Besides the oil there are other equally thorny and fundamental issues such as the exact location of the border and who will patrol it. It is not clear if the disputed oil-producing territory of Abyei will be in the North or the South. How to share precious water resources in a parched land is another contentious issue, as well as the question of citizenship and nationality of southerners in the north and northerners in the south after the referendum. Another question is who should carry what share of Sudan’s national debt burden?
North and South will struggle to resolve all of these sticking points within the six months between Sunday’s referendum and July 9, the expected date for southern independence to be officially recognized. “The progress is good but the pace is slow,” said Vertin.
High-level teams of international observers are arriving in Sudan including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Hollywood star and activist George Clooney is in Sudan to observe the vote and said he is impressed by the excitement and positive atmosphere in Juba. Clooney also teamed up with Google, Harvard University and other actors to launch a high-tech project to monitor Sudan by satellite. The Satellite Sentinel Project will keep track of any movements of troops or weapons in order to warn of signs of war.
In an unusual move China has also announced that it will send observers to the referendum underscoring China’s importance as a partner of the northern government and its desire to build a strong relationship with the emerging southern one.
Many in South Sudan express optimism about the impending vote. In an upbeat assessment referendum officials said everything was now set for the vote.
Justice Chan Reec Madut, a spokesman for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, said: “We are really 100 percent prepared.”