In the past week, the enormous North African nation of Sudan has seen its public revolutionary thunder stolen by Egypt, its smaller neighbor to the north. In some ways, this is understandable. While the political uprisings in Cairo were sudden, concentrated, and gripping, Sudan’s political troubles have been long-standing, diverse, and difficult to parse.
Still, despite the loss of a great deal of international attention, southern Sudan continued its march towards independence this week. While official results from last month’s national referendum have not yet been released (they are expected on February 14), the New York Times has reported that 98.6 percent of southern Sudanese voters are in favor of secession from the north, potentially marking a new chapter in a national history fraught with conflict and division.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and was the first to gain independence after World War II. Since then, it has had a history of inconsistent but devastating civil war between the Arab-Muslims of the north and the Christians and animists of the south. This clash has reached its most devastating peak in the Darfur region, where estimates of casualties run as high as 400,000, according to the Coalition for International Justice.
According to the Times, voting patterns in the January referendum differed sharply along geographic lines. Southern Sudanese living in the north of Sudan—including Khartoum, the capital city—were split far more evenly on the issue of secession, with 42 percent in favor of unity and 58 percent in support of the change.
If, as widely expected, the vote for secession is approved, southern Sudan would become an independent republic on July 9, likely adopting the official name of the Republic of South Sudan and establishing Juba as its official capital city.
Concerns persist about the peaceful division of land between North and South Sudan, and about South Sudan’s ability to provide for the likely influx of immigrants post-independence. In a January 10 column for the Council on Foreign Relations, John Campbell, a Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, wrote, “[T]he Juba government is ill-equipped to meet [immigrants’] needs for food, water, and shelter. It is likely that the international community led by the United States will be required to respond to forestall a humanitarian disaster.”
Sporadic violence continues to erupt in both north and south Sudan. In the north, spurred by revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, students have begun small-scale protests and demonstrations of the country’s weak economy and repressive laws. These protests have been met with violence and arrests, according to the Sudan Tribune. And the BBC reported that 13 people were killed in the south on Thursday when rival northern troops clashed at the prospect of returning home.
The Sudanese referendum has been supported and influenced by the Obama administration. In a New York Times editorial published January 9th, President Obama wrote, “[m]illions of Sudanese are making their way to the polls to determine their destiny. This is the moment when leaders of courage and vision can guide their people to a better day. Those who make the right choice will be remembered by history—they will also have a steady partner in the United States.”