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South Sudan: Vote for independence begins amid violence

Attacks in South Sudan fly in the face of optimism about referendum vote.

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.”

George Clooney in Sudan South Sudan independence graphic South Sudan wrestler
George Clooney in Sudan South Sudan on the brink South Sudan wrestling