Tim Flatman recently completed a three-month tour of South Sudan. In the first of a series of articles he reports on the recent referendum on secession and the future of the social movements in the new country.
Any election or referendum where the final result is expected to beat Alexander Lukashenko’s latest showing by nearly 20% on a 95% turnout would normally be regarded as suspect. To anyone familiar with the politics of South Sudan, however, a 99% vote for secession in a free referendum (held on 9-15 January) is highly plausible.
There were always going to be difficulties holding a vote in a large region with virtually no infrastructure, contested census results, where the first ever universal elections were held less than a year ago and where the entire population is war-traumatised. Add to this the shortened timeframe due to Northern attempts to delay/frustrate the referendum.
In a handful of counties the turnout is expected to exceed 100%, clearly less than ideal. However, reliable reports suggest the referendum was consistent with international standards and “none of the shortcomings undermine the credibility of the referendum process” (Sudanese Network for Democratic Elections). The predicted results in South Sudan itself are backed up by similar results from smaller samples of diaspora who voted in the US, UK, Israel, Kenya, Uganda and other countries.
In just over 100 days, talking with hundreds of people across South Sudan, and despite encountering a surprisingly high degree of openness, I only found one Southerner who supported continued unity with the North. Such is the desire for secession that the Government of South Sudan, and the dominant part of the South, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), undertook serious efforts to persuade ordinary people to allow campaigning for unity to take place, in the knowledge that the vote for secession was always going to be overwhelming and that their best bet for persuading other nations to accept separation was a free and fair referendum. The biggest threat to such an outcome came from war-traumatised individuals for whom differences of opinion have traditionally posed a physical threat, rather than from political institutions. This threat was successfully contained.
Demands around jobs, working rights, public services and control over resources are seen, by everyone, at every level of society, as contingent on separation first being implemented. And despite the overwhelming vote for separation and international endorsements of the voting process, separation is not guaranteed.
The National Congress Party military dictatorship based in the north still has hopes of frustrating separation by creating confusion over border demarcation and making agreement on resource-sharing difficult. If it can provoke a proxy conflict in Abyei and successfully create the impression that both sides are equally to blame, it will provide a ready-made excuse for states with interests in preserving unity (China, Egypt) to refuse to recognise a separate state of South Sudan. Other states will find it more difficult to recognise a state without clearly defined boundaries.
The very least the North would hope to get out of such confusion would be a higher proportion of the South’s natural resources, without which development of the new South Sudan is hamstrung. Any deal Southerners saw as unfair would may prompt ordinary Southerners to want to renegotiate resource-sharing agreements and that could lead back to war. However, the North hope that even if recognition of an independent South can’t be prevented, they can retain possession of the contested area of Abyei, a contested area.
Space does not allow a full discussion of the problems of Abyei here, but the only sustainable solution is transferring the entire region, as defined by the Hague, back to the South in a speedy manner. This solution is supported by the entire permanent population of Abyei, expressed through the nine traditional chiefs (whose mandate is more democratic than Western liberal democracies might sneeringly suppose), the regional administration, religious congregations, local Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement and all the local civil society organisations including youth, women, teachers, cattle-owners and health workers.
Socialists must support and mobilise for the results of the referendum to be implemented, that recognition of an independent South takes place whatever the reaction of the North, that the wishes of the permanent residents of Abyei are respected and that the bribe for peace with the North (resource-sharing) is not so burdensome as to cripple the new nation before it is even born.
However, even once these formational demands are met, there are still huge, unique, challenges in South Sudan that inhibit the emergence of social movements. I’ll return to that question in the next article.
• Tim is a Labour Party member and former party official.