Southern Sudan Set for Historic Independence Vote

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Kyodo / Newscom

People in Juba, southern Sudan, call for the independence for the region on Jan. 7, 2011.

Rarely in the history of elections has a result been so certain. Tomorrow, after 10 years of negotiations — and more than half a century of fighting — in one of the world's most brutal civil wars, polls will open in a referendum on independence in Southern Sudan. Though voting will take a week and counting is expected to last several more, there is no doubt that Africa's biggest country will split in two. "I grew up during the war, I suffered during the war," says Gabriel Anyuon, a 28-year-old Southern Sudanese from Jonglei state. "An independent Southern Sudan has been what our people have been fighting for. If we don't get 98%, we will get 95%. Separation is inevitable."

For decades, few southerners thought this day would ever come. Northern Sudan fought two long wars against southern separatists, from 1956-1972 and 1983-2005, which cost two million lives. And though Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir agreed to the plebiscite as part of a peace deal in 2005, his reluctance to allow the vote to go ahead was clear from the start. Bashir reiterated his opposition to the south's secession in an interview with al Jazeera today, saying the south was not ready to rule itself. "The south suffers from many problems," he said. "It's been at war since 1959. The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority." He added that any attempt to seize Abyei, an oil-rich region in the disputed border territory that both sides claim, could lead to war. The threat is real — two clashes broke out today in the Abyei area between rival northern and southern communities, according to multiple sources. Fighting also erupted yesterday in nearby Unity state, but so far, the violence seems contained.

Northern opposition to southern independence is understandable. The north has much to lose: 80% of Sudan's oil is in the south. Its secession might also encourage other Sudanese rebel movements, such as in Darfur or Kordofan, where many residents share the south's anger at Khartoum's marginalization of the country's peripheries. Accordingly, Bashir's party delayed setting up the referendum-organizing commission until July. After that, however, the technical side of the process simply overtook the political, leaving Bashir with few options that did not end in conflict. His apparent acceptance of Sudan's split seems to come down to simple calculation: better to lose the south than face international isolation and another war, which the south threatened would immediately follow any postponement.

Other factors helped push the referendum process forward. Southern Sudan's leaders, of the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, have adamantly refused to consider any delay. And the world has united in its stance on Sudan. The African Union has led mediation between the two sides and has been backed by the European Union and the United Nations. China, Sudan's biggest oil importer, has also pushed for peace, as the best business environment for its drilling operations. The U.S., which helped bring the two sides to a ceasefire in the 2002-2005 negotiations, has played a crucial role, too. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, is now on his third trip to Sudan on behalf of President Barack Obama since November, when he offered Khartoum a deal to remove Sudan from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism — a relic from the days Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s — as well as a package of other incentives, to allow the vote to proceed peacefully.

For the U.S. in particular, engaging a pariah state has been awkward and has attracted some criticism. Bashir was indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges for suppressing the rebellion in Darfur. The Sudanese leader would like his arrest warrant deferred or annulled. Kerry told TIME in Khartoum on Jan. 4 that although that issue had not formed part of his discussions with the regime — "we don't control [the indictments], we are not a party of the court" — Bashir "probably understands that whatever the future is is probably going to be defined by his management of all this." Kerry added that engagement, in this instance, had proved the critics wrong. The diplomatic process was working, he said. Bashir, he added, "deserves credit" for his pledge to respect the outcome of the poll. "The movement of both sides to a responsible walk-up to the referendum has been superb," he told TIME.

Contrast the years of painstaking diplomacy that have brought Sudan to this point with the joy that is now sweeping Juba, which in six months is set to become the world's newest capital city. Celebratory rallies, marked by impassioned speeches and singing, and dancing are a daily occurrence in Juba. Southerners who have been living in the north have also been returning home in tens of thousands to join the party. Jacob Gok Chieng is one. Six years ago, he joined his family up north so he could get a primary education. Now 28, he is sleeping on the banks of the White Nile in Juba in a camp with other returnees. He has no money, and he and his nine other family members are living off the $7 an uncle brings every couple days for support. Yet he is all smiles. "Life in Khartoum was difficult," he says. "The northerners were not friendly. Racism was a problem." Now, he says, he is home. And soon his home will be free.