By Faith McDonnell, Director, Religious Liberty Programs and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, The Institute on Religion and Democracy
After over 40 years of war, beginning before Sudan’s independence when Islamists had already planned to impose Shari’a on the whole country (1950’s), the South of Sudan will, this weekend, vote in a Referendum on Secession from the country. From January 9-15, 2011, voting will take place for Southern Sudanese all over the world, not just in Sudan, but in the Diaspora, according to S. Sudan Referendum Law, in eight countries, including Kenya, Uganda, the United States, England, and Australia . It is almost a sure thing that the South will vote overwhelmingly to secede and begin a new nation in which they will have religious freedom and secular democracy.
There are deep concerns about the process of voting and that the vote for secession will be free and fair. Many Southern Sudanese are concerned that some of the people working for the organization that is overseeing the Referendum, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), may be attempting to slant the vote in favor of unity and some South Sudanese have claimed that there is a connection between an organization that is run by the wife of Sudan President and indicted ICC war criminal, Omar al Bashir, and IOM Egyptian employees. It is definitely true that leaders in the Arab world have declared that Sudan must stay united. There are concerns for the safety of Southerners who live in the North, once secession is declared. And there are concerns that even if the actual voting process goes smoothly, Khartoum may try to undermine the new nation by creating conflicts that make it appear as if South Sudan is a “failed” state.
Concerns for the actual voting process are many. For instance, it is imperative that all of those Southern Sudanese who registered to vote, when registration took place in November, do actually vote. There must be a 60% turnout of the registered voters, so any attempt to change the vote could include preventing registered citizens from voting. A 51% vote for secession will bring about South Sudan’s independence. This was a hard fought and won battle by the Government of South Sudan. Khartoum had previously insisted that there should be a 75-90% vote in favor of secession to win, and that there should be a turnout of two-thirds of the registered voters. But South Sudan is determined to be free. In spite of worries about voter fraud, intimidation, even threats from the Islamist Somali crazies of Al Shabaab turning up as suicide bombers and/or attacking voting stations, the people of South Sudan are determined to be free.
The Obama Administration has not been particularly active in the use of the bully pulpit for South Sudan, and has frequently appeased Khartoum and acted as if the Islamist regime and the South of Sudan were morally equivalent. But news has just been reported that Sec. of State Clinton, along with former Sec. of State Colin Powell, and former Sudan Special Envoy John Danforth are heading to Sudan just ahead of the vote on January 8. This is good news. It means that the US Government has heard the voices of the people of South Sudan and the voice of passionate advocates all over the world. Hopefully, this means that Khartoum has heard those voices, as well.