Between the 9th and 15th of January some 4 million South Sudanese voted in the South Sudan referendum, with never-ending queues in scenes reminiscent of the South African elections of 1994. The referendum was the final chapter of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the twenty two year long Sudanese civil war which killed 2 million people. It gave Southerners the choice as to whether they should remain united with Sudan or have independence, but for some it wasn’t just independence but the birth of freedom. On the 30th of January the South Sudan Referendum Commission announced that 98.83% voted for separation. Sadly, however, this was expected.
The sad truth is that Sudan was always a divided nation; in religion, geography, language and culture, which is unfortunate because with a country with around 597 tribes, over 400 languages and several religions it could have been a powerful force of cultural and religious unity and an example to the world. It failed due to a clash of identities between Muslim Arabs and Christian, Animist Africans. It exposes the consequences of the failure of a nation to unite because of the differences of its people, but it exposes something more.
The referendum has been dismal for the Arab world with fears that it could trigger similar effects with Kurdistan in Iraq or with the tribal differences in Yemen. It made Arabs question: ‘why is an ‘Arab’ nation breaking apart?’. In Egypt, Islamic scholars issued fatwas declaring it was wrong for Muslims to vote in the Referendum; according to the Muslim Brotherhood it’s a ‘century-old Ecclesiastical plot to close Islam’s gateway into Africa and a plan to break up other Arab states’. Iranian media blamed it as a Western and Zionist conspiracy to weaken the Islamic world. It’s was very surprising to see that Arab governments were suddenly concerned about the referendum taking into account that they were virtually uninvolved in the civil war peace discussions, and failed to put any pressure on the Sudanese government to improve relations with the South Sudanese Government.
The reality is however a combination of three factors, that lead to this separation; the first is historic, no one recalls Britain’s ‘closed regions law’ in the 1920s, which banned people from the North migrating to the South, and thus caused a social divide which prevented the two regions to integrate peacefully. The second is the civil wars caused by the Sudanese governments failure to provide full religious and economic equality across the country. The third factor is external influences from the West due to economic interests, in short oil. The US and the West has been consistently edging the South to separate, the US media have assisted in this by demonising the Arab and Muslim North by producing a story of poor black Africans being oppressed by typical mean and oppressive Muslims, this is the story that they are portraying in Darfur, (not that the average American knows Darfur is made up of Muslims). Also, during the civil war Israel supplied and funded the Southern rebels to continue the civil war so that it would distract Sudan from assisting in the Arab-Israeli wars, this in turn helped prolong the war.
The South Sudanese people have always identified themselves as Africans, in the majority view they detest the North and Arab world, identifying them as oppressors and slavers. But can one blame them, the South has been scarred by 39 years civil war (total of the first and second civil wars), that has seen two whole generations born in ignorance and bloodshed, for them the referendum is not only their independence but the breaking of their chains. Many in the North disagree with separation but still sympathise with their Southern brothers for the destruction the war caused, not only in the South, but across the entire country. It economically weakened a country that could have been the breadbasket of the world.
The referendum is important news in Africa that will see a break from old colonial borders and could signal other regions to want independence; the referendum has been closely watched in Nigeria which too has experienced social conflicts between Muslims and Christians in its northern states. Despite all this, the referendum should instead be seen as a shining example of a people choosing their own destiny through peace, which was hailed by President Obama as ‘a new chapter in history’ . It should be an example to the people of Kashmir and Western Sahara, and an example to us all that if we fail to respect each other’s differences and unite in the spirit of brotherhood and humanity we will be doomed as failures to mankind.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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