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Explainer: Southern Sudan's independence referendum

  • Southern Sudanese will cast ballots in a historic referendum starting Jan. 9 to decide whether or not to split Africa’s largest country in two. 

    The referendum is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of bloody civil war between north and south Sudan that killed an estimated 2 million people.

    Almost 4 million southern Sudanese, roughly half the south's population of 8 million, have registered to vote in the referendum. Most analysts believe the south will vote to secede from the north and create a new independent nation. 

    Read more about what’s at stake at the southern Sudanese head to the polls.

  • Why does southern Sudan want independence?

    Image: Southern Sudanese Prepare to Take Part in Historic Vote
    Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
    Women walk home to their village with water on the outskirts of the southern Sudanese city of Juba on Jan. 6. 

    Like much of Africa, Sudan’s borders are a legacy of colonial powers and have little regard for the vast cultural and religious differences that divide north and south. The north is mostly Muslim and is dominated by Arab influences, while the south is largely Christian or animist and is more close culturally to Kenya, Uganda and other sub-Saharan nations. 

    With the Arab-dominated central government based in the north, in Khartoum, many southerners feel that they have been discriminated against and oppose moves to impose Islamic law across the country.

  • Putting Sudan on the map

    Sudan is Africa's largest country and the tenth largest country in the world. While the Nile runs through the country, the climate is divided by arid desert in the north and lush tropics in the south.

  • Who can vote?

    Image: Men sit on a bus as they arrive for a rally in Juba
    GORAN TOMASEVIC  /  Reuters
    Men sit on a bus as they arrive for a rally in Juba, South Sudan's largest city, on Jan. 4.

    Only southern Sudanese are eligible to vote, which is why many analysts believe the outcome will be secession. Out of the nearly 4 million people who have registered to vote, more than 95 percent live in southern Sudan, the rest are southern Sudanese living in the north or in one of eight foreign countries.  For the referendum to be considered valid, 60 percent of voters must take part. Voting begins Jan. 9 and will last for seven days.

  • What are the key issues?

    Pete Muller  /  AP
    Southern Sudanese security forces wait outside the control room of the Petrodar oil facility in Paloich, southern Sudan on Nov.17, 2010. Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer, behind Nigeria and Angola. It produced 490,000 barrels of oil a day last year. Most of the oil is in the south. But the pipelines run through the north. 

    Oil. Sudan’s economy has boomed in recent years, thanks to billions of dollars in oil exports. Sudan is now sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer, behind Nigeria and Angola. The south produces an estimated 75 percent of Sudan’s crude oil, but receives only 50 percent of the revenue, which is split with the government in Khartoum, fueling some of the animosity toward the north.

    But the south is landlocked – and the pipelines to export oil run through the north to the Red Sea. After two decades of war, the south’s infrastructure is severely lacking – with few paved roads, schools or factories. Southern leaders have invested in rebuilding, but they seem to recognize that they will have to continue working with the north and share the oil if they want to continue reaping the profits.

    China is also heavily invested in Sudan’s oil, so it has a vested interest in the referendum’s outcome. China is Sudan’s largest trading partner – 58 percent of its exports, predominately oil, head to Beijing, according to the CIA World Factbook.

    One oil-rich area, Abyei, is not included in the referendum. It will hold a separate vote later to decide which country it will be a part of.

  • Who are the leaders?

    Image: South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Sudan
    GORAN TOMASEVIC  /  Reuters
    South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, left, and Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, right, review an honor guard at the airport in Juba Jan. 4.

    Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir seized power in a military coup in 1989 and has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued two international arrest warrants for him on the charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges stem from the conflict in western Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or displaced by the fighting between government and rebel forces.

    Bashir was also the driving force behind the brutal civil war with the south, which killed an estimated 2 million. Nevertheless, Bashir visited the south before the vote and offered support for the historic referendum.  “I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” Bashir said in a speech in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 4. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides. We cannot deny the desire and the choice of the people of the south. This is their right.”

    Salva Kiir is the president of southern Sudan (it has been a semiautonomous region since the peace treaty was signed in 2005). Kiir, whose signature look is a cowboy hat, is a former rebel and leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. He is extremely popular in the south and won 93 percent of the most recent election, in April 2010. He favors full independence for the south and is expected to be the leader of the new country if it secedes.

  • What is the United States view of the referendum?

    Image: Presidential adviser Nafi Ali Nafi walks with U.S. Senator Kerry after meeting at the presidential palace in Khartoum
    U.S. Senator John Kerry walks with Sudanese presidential adviser Nafi Ali Nafi after a meeting at the presidential palace in Khartoum on Jan. 5. Kerry told reporters that the U.S government looks forward to success in Sudan's referendum.

    As one of the parties involved with negotiating the 2005 peace treaty to end the civil war, the United States has pledged its support to south Sudan if it votes to secede.

    "The United States has invested a great deal of diplomacy to ensure that the outcome of this referendum is successful and peaceful," Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the Obama administration's top diplomat for Africa, told reporters in Washington on Jan. 5. "We will also as a country help that new nation to succeed, get on its feet and to move forward successfully, economically and politically."

  • Will there be international observers?

    Pete Muller  /  AP
    Justice Chan Reec Madut, the chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, shows off the referendum ballot during a press conference in Juba, southern Sudan on Jan. 3.

    The vote will be closely scrutinized by more than 3,000 international and domestic observers. U.S. Senator John Kerry has already arrived in Sudan and will be joined by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as part of the Carter Center's 100-strong observation delegation. Actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast will also be on hand. China, which has invested heavily in Sudanese oil development, is also sending observers.

  • Sources

    BBC, The New York Times, Reuters, CIA World Fact Book, The Economist

Video: Is oil the secret to a peaceful future in Sudan?


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