Pete Muller  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS
Justice Chan Reec Madut, center, the chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, shows the referendum ballot during a press conference in Juba, southern Sudan on Monday. 
updated 1/6/2011 12:50:14 PM ET 2011-01-06T17:50:14

Separation or unity. A solitary hand or two clasped together.

That's the choice — and the ballot image — for close to 4 million registered voters in Southern Sudan beginning Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from Africa's biggest country begins.

The vote, which is likely to lead to the world's newest nation, is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended a north-south civil war that lasted two decades and killed 2 million people.

A high five or a handshake?
Organizing the vote in the impoverished land, where many are herders and nomadic at least part of the year and where only 15 percent of people can read and write, was an enormous challenge. Only 2 percent of southerners complete primary school.

Almost 4 million voters were registered over the last several months, including 116,000 southerners who live in Sudan's north and 60,000 in eight other countries, including the U.S.

To be on the safe side, more ballots were printed than the number of registered voters. More than 7.3 million ballots were sent to Southern Sudan for distribution to more than 2,600 polling sites, in places ranging from the slowly up-and-coming southern capital of Juba to remote cattle herder hamlets of a few huts. Anyone who has a parent or ancestor from a southern tribe can vote, as can anyone whose parents or grandparents have been in the south since Jan. 1, 1956.

Southerners will be using a ballot that is much simpler than the long list of names and symbols they were confronted with during national elections in April. This time, the ballot shows two images: one of a lone hand that represents independence and the other image depicting two clasped hands, along with the words "Secession" and "Unity."

The south's ruling party has worked to educate the population on what each symbol means so there will be no confusion at the ballot box. Top officials have even taken to greeting one another with a high five — to show two separate hands — instead of a handshake.

The European Union will have 104 observers and experts. The Carter Center — founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter — is deploying more than 100 observers. Carter himself, along with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Sen. John Kerry and actor George Clooney, a Sudan activist, will be present for the referendum. China, which has large investments in Sudan's oil sector, is also sending observers.

Many voters likely will walk for hours to get to polling stations.

Southern Sudan, a Texas-sized territory of an estimated 8.7 million people, has very little infrastructure outside Juba. It is among the world's poorest, least healthy and least educated countries. The U.N. says a typical 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school. Aid groups say southerners streaming home from the north are creating dire shortages of basic services.

"We have an unfolding humanitarian crisis layered on top of an existing and forsaken one," said Susan Purdin of the International Rescue Committee.

Pete Muller  /  AP
Pro-separation activists hold signs and chant pro-independence slogans outside the Juba airport in southern Sudan as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived on Tuesday.

What's next?
After the polls close on Jan. 15, counting will begin at local polling stations as local and international observers watch. Results will be posted at each polling site, giving the world an early look at piecemeal results. The ballots will then be sent to Juba and verified using a double blind data entry system.

Southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for secession. There were concerns that the central government in Khartoum could manipulate the votes from the north, but only 160,000 voters are registered there so any meddling with those results would likely be too insignificant to affect the outcome. The referendum needs 50 percent plus one vote to pass, along with a 60 percent turnout of registered voters.

A summary of the results will be posted on a website. Final results aren't expected to be verified until the end of January. It is likely the vote's outcome will be known well before then, however.

"There is an overwhelming consensus that the south will vote to secede. The question is what happens the day after the vote," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The north and south still need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, rights to the White Nile, official borders and citizenship rights. If the south votes to secede, full independence won't take place before July 9, when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, expires and a new agreement must take its place, said Ottaway.

Violence could still flare along border hotspots and in the region of Abyei, which had also been scheduled to hold a freedom referendum on Sunday but no longer is. Instead, it is likely to be subject to continued negotiations between the north and south, brokered alternately by the African Union and the U.S.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in Geneva on Thursday that despite some worrying restrictions on press freedoms and arbitrary arrests that she is cautiously optimistic Sudan's government would respect the outcome of the vote. She urged vigilance against any intimidation of the 1.5 million southern Sudanese living in the north.

But after Sudan President Omar al-Bashir visited the southern capital on Tuesday and pledged that secession would happen peacefully, observers said the chances for mass violence dropped.

The U.S. has said it may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if the government in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, helps the referendum come off peacefully.

The State Department said this week that the Obama administration is optimistic about the credibility of the upcoming referendum and that the result will be respected.

The north is mostly Arabic speaking and Muslim, while the south is populated by black Africans who are mostly Christian and animist. They began fighting in the 1960s, after Sudan gained independence from joint British-Egyptian control in 1956.

The fiercest period was the two-decade span that began in the early 1980s and ended with the peace agreement.

___

Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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?

    Image:
    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
    MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH  /  Reuters
    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?

    Image:
    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: Winds of War, Part 1

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