98.83% of the Southern Sudanese voted in favour of splitting from the North in the January referendum. From the past record of violence and civil war stretching back decades, one has to wonder if this referendum may result in more harm than good. Will there finally be peace?
Sudan, the largest country in Africa, is situated in East Africa bordering Egypt to the North. The South is characterized by tropical heat and the North by arid deserts, with the Nile meandering through it. It is home to approximately 44 million people, many of whom remain nomadic or have become so, due to the on-going conflicts across the country. Most of the Sudanese people have spent the majority of their lives in the midst of civil war and crisis. However, as with many African countries, there seems to be little news coverage or place at all on the world agenda.
George Clooney is just one celebrity who has turned his efforts to Sudan, in an attempt to draw more international media attention to the country. After becoming involved in the crisis in Darfur half a decade ago, he has returned to the area several times leading up to the referendum. Clooney says, “if the cameras are gonna follow me everywhere I go, then I’m gonna go to places that the cameras should be.” By using his celebrity status, Clooney has taken an active role in becoming involved with the country’s politics. Regardless of whether you believe this is a publicity stunt or not, there is no doubt that he is helping shed light on the often too-easily forgotten Sudan. Coverage by media such as CNN and the documentary ‘Winds of War: George Clooney in Sudan’ have been part of the result in raising awareness. The more Westerners are focusing on Sudan, the more difficult it should be for people in Sudan to get away with such atrocities.
The desire for southern independence has existed for over half a century. The year before gaining independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan plummeted into its first devastating civil war. This raged between the Christian African South demanding regional autonomy from the Muslim Arab North. The Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 granted the Southerners a single Southern administrative region, thus temporarily ending the violence.
However, by 1983 the Second Civil War had broken out, as the North wanted access to the recently discovered oilfields in the South, whilst the South was still demanding independence. This led to the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the South, who challenged the central government. By 1989, military officers had replaced the government and Omar al-Bashir was made President. Clashes continued until the 2005, when the Naivasha peace agreement ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and set out plans for referendum in South Sudan. It is estimated that at the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War, almost 4 million had been displaced and 2 million had died due to violence and starvation.
With this vote for independence, there is a new feeling of hope. There have been sporadic outbreaks of violence in the time leading up to and after the referendum, though this has been far less than expected.
Interestingly, Omar al-Bashir, who is facing charges of genocide and war crimes from the International Criminal Court, seems to be more cooperative than initially anticipated. He accepted the voting results, meeting with the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission and First Vice President, Salva Kiir Mayärdït. Mayärdït will officially become the President of South Sudan upon independence in July 2011. Until then, there is a long wait for summer to arrive.