January 07, 2011

Building a new nation: The birth of Southern Sudan

Sudan has been in the headlines in the past years for all the wrong reasons. The international community has condemned the handling of the government of the Civil war (labeled genocide by the US) that killed and affected thousands of inhabitants of the western Darfur region. Its president, Omar al-Bashir is the only sitting head of state accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The country is one of the most underdeveloped places on Earth.

The country has been ethnically and religiously divided for centuries. The British controlled the country for more than fifty years, in which the North and South were governed separately. The North is inhabited by Arab speaking Muslims while the South has different African ethnic groups including a large population of Christians. The North has always been in control, even after independence in 1956. That led to a war that both sides fought which killed 2 million people in 22 years.
Although both regions belong to the same country, the South has much more severe levels of hunger, lack of basic infrastructure and education. Thousands, probably millions, have fled to neighbor countries and asked for asylum in the West. Through the years, the South was granted some degree of autonomy until in 2005 it was decided that in 2011 people of the South would decide in a referendum if the region should split from the North and form a new country. That referendum will take place in the following days, and thousands have returned from exile in order to vote. The vast majority of the Southerners are expected to vote in favor of independence, but that's just the start. There are worries that the North won't recognize the referendum, although the government has publicly announced that they will respect the will of the voters.

One of the key worries is how would an independent Southern Sudan survive economically and what implications will the separation have for the North. Sudan is an oil producing country. The South produces more than 80% of the oil, but only receives 50% of the revenue. Both sides agreed to divide the revenue by half, in part because the pipelines go through the North and it would be very expensive for the South to build new ones. That 50-50 share is not expected to change after independence.

The referendum and the eventual separation of Africa's biggest country will undoubtedly have important regional economic and political implications. The mostly unstable continent will closely watch the development of the vote. The independence of Southern Sudan would be a precedent for other African regions with separatist groups that for sure will have one or two governments a bit nervous.

To learn more go to the following links:

BBC News special coverage of the referendum

CNN's coverage of the Sudan vote

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