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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?

    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

Photos: Sudan: A vote on secession

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  1. A South Sudanese woman and her child arrive at a polling station during the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, in Juba, southern Sudan, on January 13. With a continued large turnout of voters in South Sudan, the United Nations said results for the self-determination balloting are expected in early February, provided there are no appeals. But the final result would be declared on February 7 or 14 according to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission‘s timeline, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky at UN headquarters in New York. The commission reported voters‘ turnout at 46 per cent since the seven-day voting began on January 9 to decide whether Southern Sudanese want to be independent or to remain under the government in Khartoum. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A poll observer keeps track of the amount of voters on a tally sheet at a polling station in Juba on January 13. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An aerial view of part of the town of Yambio, south Sudan. Yambio, a poor and isolated town near the borders of Central African Republic and the Congo, has had a history of conflict due to the presence of the shadowy paramilitary group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) which has terrorized much of the population along the border regions of the three countries. South Sudan, one of the world's poorest regions, is participating in an independence referendum following a historic 2005 peace treaty that brought to an end decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote around 99 percent to secede from the north which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil. The result is expected to split Africa s largest country in two. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war which began in the 1950`s. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A child heads back to his home while carrying wood on his head in the town of Yambio, south Sudan, on January 13. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. View of new buildings under construction in Juba on January 13. Juba is preparing to become a capital city. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebecca Kadi receives assistance to cast her ballot in southern Sudan's independence referendum in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday, Jan.12. About four million Southern Sudanese voters began casting their ballots Sunday in a week-long referendum on independence that is expected to split Africa's largest nation in two. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A boy walks down a road while collecting recycling in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cattle walk in a ring at a market in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday. The result of the referendum is expected to split Africa's largest country in two. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war which began in the 1950's. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. South Sudanese policemen wait to cast their votes during the referendum on the independence of South Sudan at a polling station in Juba, southern Sudan, on Wednesday. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Southern Sudanese woman casts her vote at a ballot box at a polling center during the third day of the referendum in Khartoum, Sudan on Tuesday, January 11. Arab tribesman attacked a vehicle convoy carrying southern Sudanese traveling from the country's north to their home region, which is holding an independence referendum this week, an official said Tuesday. Conflicting reports put the death toll between two and 10. (Abd Raouf / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rosalynn Carter, wife of former US President Jimmy Carter, speaks with South Sudanese women at a polling station in Juba on Tuesday. For the vote to be valid, a 60 per cent of those registered have to vote. According to the referendum commission's timetable, preliminary results will be announced on February 1 and the final results are expected by February 14. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A policeman searches a queue of voters at a polling station as the referendum continues in Juba on Tuesday. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A pedestrian walks on an unpaved road in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan on Tuesday. Currently less than 100 km of paved roads exist in Southern Sudan. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Sudanese people carry their belongings in the Nile river in Juba on Monday.Juba inhabitants rely on the White Nile waters to bathe, wash their belongings, and themselves, transport things and for fishing. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A mother and her daughter walk to a polling station during the second day of voting for the independence referendum Jan. 10 in Juba, Sudan. Southern Sudan is participating in the referendum following a historic 2005 peace treaty that brought an end to decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote to secede from the north, which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil and split Africa's largest country in two. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A policeman from the southern Sudanese police service shows his inked index finger after voting at a polling center in Juba on Jan.10. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A staff member leaves a polling center to take break during the second day of the referendum in the suburb of Mandela, on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Electoral workers check voting registration cards of voters during the referendum in Juba, southern Sudan on Jan. 10. (Khaled El Fiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A mother and daughter register at a polling station in Juba, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. South Sudanese people wait to cast their votes during the referendum at a polling station in Juba, southern Sudan, on Jan. 10. (Khaled El Fiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A poster of Salva Kiir Mayardit, acting President of the Government of Southern Sudan, is viewed in Juba, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A south Sudanese woman waits in a line to cast her ballot in the referendum in the rural village of Peiti, northwest of Juba, south Sudan on Jan. 10. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Southern Sudanese line up to vote at dawn in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 9. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Southern Sudanese women wave a Southern Sudan flag as they wait to cast their vote for the referendum on the independence of South Sudan at a polling station in Juba, Southern Sudan, Jan 9. Southern Sudanese went to the polls in a historic referendum that is widely expected to see them vote to split from the north. The week-long vote is the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south - a conflict which claimed the lives of more than 2 million southerners and displaced 4 million more. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Southern Sudanese women wait outside a heavily-guarded polling station in Juba to vote on Jan. 9. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, check for their names on a voters' registration list before casting their vote at their base in Juba, Southern Sudan, Jan. 9. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. South Sudanese men hold voting registration cards as they wait in the line to vote at a polling station during the referendum in Juba, south Sudan, Jan. 9. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A group of south Sudanese people, who just arrived from Kampala, Uganda, in the bordertown of Nimule on Jan. 9, celebrate the start of a referendum in Sudan expected to lead to the partition of Africa's largest nation and the creation of the world's 193rd UN member state. (Marc Hofer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. South Sudanese living in Kenya, push to get in a polling station in Nairobi to vote on Jan. 9. (Simon Maina / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A southern Sudanese prisoner votes inside Khartoum's Kober jail on Jan. 9.. A special voting room was set up inside the jail to make it possible for southern prisoners to participate in the landmark independence referendum. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A southern Sudanese voter shows his inked thumb after marking his ballot on Jan. 9. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Southern Sudanese women dance outside a polling station in Cairo on Jan. 9. (Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A southern Sudanese man prepares a voting station before the independence referendum vote tomorrow in the southern Sudanese city of Juba, Jan. 8. South Sudan is preparing for an independence referendum to take place Sunday following a historic 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote around 99 percent to secede from the north, which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil. The result is expected to split Africa's largest country in two. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Southern Sudanese participate in a day of prayer at a church before the independence referendum vote tomorrow in Juba, Sudan, on Jan. 8. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, is one of the international observers of the upcoming South Sudan referendum. He's pictured here in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 8. (Philip Dhil / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A southern Sudanese general marchandise shop hangs a pro-secession poster on its entrance door in Juba, Sudan, on Jan. 7. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A mother washes her daughter in a camp for internally displaced Sudanese from Khartoum at a port in the southern Sudanese city of Juba on Jan. 7. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Rebecca Agau Deng, a student at the University of Juba, asks a question during a public lecture by Thabo Mbeki, former South African president and chairman of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, at the Nyakaron Cultural Center in Juba, on Jan. 7. (Tim Mckulka Unmis Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Southern Sudanese march in a pro-separation rally in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 7. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war, which began in the 1950s. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. U.S. Sen. John Kerry speaks to the UNAMID (United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur) staff and peacekeepers during a Jan. 7 visit to the mission's team site in Shangil Tobaya in north Darfur. Shangil Tobaya houses internally displaced persons camps where thousands of people have fled to after fighting between Sudan's army and Darfur rebels. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Voting materials are delivered by a U.N. helicopter to an area in Tali, southern Sudan, that is inaccessible by road, Jan. 2. (Tim Mckulka / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A southern Sudanese man, wearing a T-shirt reading "Vote For Your Freedom," holds up a cross during a Christmas Eve procession in Juba on Dec. 24. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Southern Sudanese citizens chant slogans and hold placards as they march in support of the independence referendum, in Juba on Dec. 9. (Str / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Sudanese look at an example of ballot slips at the southern Sudan referendum commission offices in Khartoum on Nov. 14. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A southern Sudanese woman receives her voter registration card in the southern town of Melut on Nov. 15. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Southern Sudanese children wash their faces next to their family belongings as they wait for transportion upon their arrival to Juba from Khartoum on Jan. 6. The U.N. has appealed for more than $32 million in emergency funds to support thousands of southern Sudanese returning home ahead of the referendum on south Sudan's independence. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. South Sudan returnees arrive at the main port of Juba after 17 days on a boat from Khartoum, Dec. 17. (Str / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A group of internally displaced people sit inside a bus in a transport convoy bound for Unity state in south Sudan, in Khartoum on Oct. 28. Sudan's north-south civil war, which was Africa's longest civil war, pitted Khartoum's Islamist government against rebels who mostly followed Christianity and traditional beliefs, and culminated in a 2005 north-south peace deal. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. A woman waves to a bus packed with south Sudanese people who used to live in eastern Khartoum, as the passengers return to the south of the country, in Khartoum on Oct. 28. (Philip Dhil / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Internally displaced Sudanese from the south sit next to their packed belongings in Khartoum on Oct. 27. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. A doctor examines Sudanese children, on Dec. 6 at the Kalma camp for internally displaced persons in Nyala, south Darfur. (Albert Gonzalez Farran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Southern Sudanese women from the Abu Shouq internally displaced people's camp attend classes at a center for adult education, near El Fasher, north of Darfur, on Dec. 13. (Albert Gonzalez Farran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Sudanese teacher Abdullah Abdel Rahim gives a lesson to students at a school in Abu Shouk refugee camp, north of the Darfur town of Al-Fasher, Sudan, on April 20, 2007. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. A Sudanese refugee woman is reflected in a shattered mirror at a private home where they and others are temporarily being housed after crossing into Israel from Egypt, at Kadesh Barnea, in southern Israel near the international border with Egypt, on Aug. 20, 2007. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Displaced Sudanese women line up to receive food at Kasab internally displaced people's camp near Kutum, northern Darfur, Sudan, in this July 2004 picture. (Marcus Prior / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. A Sudanese woman carries a 150-pound bag of sorghum on Jan. 22, 2004, as she and other villagers gather up U.N. World Food Program aid dropped from the air. (Edward Parsons / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A Sudanese boy, covered in flies, cries in the Koumouangou refugee camp in Chad near the Sudan border, July 6, 2004. (Karel Prinsloo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. A man walks past a destroyed homestead in the village of Kafod, north Darfur, Sudan, on July 2, 2008. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region. (Stuart Price / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Sudanese Darfur survivor Ibrahim holds human skulls at the site of a mass grave on the outskirts of the west Darfur town of Mukjar, Sudan, on April 23, 2007. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Rebel soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army cheer after a morning run in Nyal in southern Sudan, Nov. 20, 2003. Two months earlier, the Sudanese government agreed to allow the rebel army to retain its force in the south for a six-year transitional period as part of a U.S.-backed peace initiative. (John Moore / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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