In South Sudan, a delayed vote could mean the collapse of fragile peace.
JUBA, Sudan -- "Nothing can stop this referendum," Nixon Simon told me last week in a restaurant in the fledgling capital of South Sudan. Simon, a forestry engineer, had just come home to Juba after fleeing as a refugee 20 years ago. But his words could have come from any southerner. Just about everyone in the region -- which has become increasingly independent-minded since the end of Sudan's horrific, decades-long civil war cut the country in two -- agrees they can no longer live under the oppressive yoke of the northern government in Khartoum. Simon is counting down to the referendum slated for next January, when the south is widely expected to vote for secession.
Khartoum, however, may have other plans. In recent weeks, high-level officials have recommended that the contested 1,300-mile border that divides the country into north and south should be given a final demarcation before a vote. It might seem reasonable to request that a country know its own borders before declaring independence -- but from the south's perspective, Khartoum's suggestion is purely a stalling tactic. Demarcating the borders will be a laborious, miserable process that could take years. And angry southerners aren't likely to wait that long for independence, even if it means descending back into violence.
When Sudan's north and south signed the 2005 agreement that ended the civil war, they agreed on the so-called "1/1/1956" border, the one in effect when Sudan became independent from Britain half a century ago. But in the past five years, the central government's National Congress Party (NCP) and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) have found numerous points of contention along the historic boundary. A border-demarcation committee made up of technocrats from both north and south has officially mapped out 80 percent of the border, but at least five areas remain under dispute.
The most perilous disputed border may well be the Abyei region in the center of the country, populated by rival tribes, the Misseriya, seminomadic pastoralists, and the Ngok Dinka, who are sedentary farmers. The Ngok Dinka claim historic rights to the land, which they've lived on for hundreds of years and which the British guaranteed them in 1905. The Misseriya, meanwhile, have grazing rights, but explosive tension over the extent of these rights dates back to the 1960s and the first Sudanese civil war, when the Dinka became allied with the south and the Misseriya with the north. The situation came to a head most recently in May 2008, when 60,000 people fled into the south after the northern Sudanese army razed and looted Abyei's main town, indiscriminately killing at least 18 civilians.
The 2005 peace accord promised the people of Abyei their own separate referendum on whether to join the north or the south following the southern secession vote, regardless of its outcome. But this referendum has been delayed even longer than the southern vote. Locals have taken to the streets repeatedly in the past several months, protesting the current impasse between the NCP and SPLM over the administration of the vote and begging the international community to step in.
Visiting Abyei earlier this month to gauge the tensions, I asked several young people from the southern-allied Ngok Dinka group what they thought of their Misseriya rivals. The response was hardened resentment and flaring tempers. None of the Ngok Dinka said they had friends from the other tribe: "Of course not," one told me.
Internationally led attempts in recent years to reconcile the two groups have borne little fruit. Both sides face existential threats -- the loss of land and livelihood -- depending on the outcome of the vote. Most recently, the SPLM accused Khartoum of paying to build permanent structures for the Misseriya in historically Ngok-Dinka-dominated northern areas of Abyei, possibly in an attempt to stock the area with north-friendly voters and sway the referendum.
With the Abyei issue nowhere near resolution, can the South Sudan referendum proceed? Technically, the answer is a simple yes. On a number of occasions, disputed borders haven't prevented the formation of a new country: Eritrea being carved out of Ethiopia or the breakup of Yugoslavia, for example. (Of course, this didn't work out so well in either case.) Nor is there any international precedent for physically demarcating a border prior to a separation vote, as advisors to the SPLM have been quick to point out. Northern Sudan itself already has an undemarcated and disputed border with its ally Egypt: the Hala'ib Triangle, a border area almost twice the size of Abyei.
But the mere fact of precedent isn't going to hold the north back from blocking the vote, or the south back from a violent uprising -- not least because several of the disputed border areas in Sudan hold huge amounts of known oil reserves and gold deposits. The Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based think tank, has reported that the south currently holds about 82 percent of Sudan's oil fields. If Heglig and Bamboo -- two disputed fields that the south claims should end up on its side of the border -- were counted, that figure could reach up to 95 percent. At the moment, the armies of the NCP and SPLM are gathered close to these disputed areas, poised to see what will happen next.
And back in Juba, many miles away from the broiling borderlands, southerners like Simon are getting angrier and angrier. South Sudan is certainly tired of conflict, and it has good reason to be. But it is even more tired of waiting to vote.