ABYEI, Sudan – A week of polling ended and vote-counting began Saturday in a landmark referendum expected to result in the breakup of Africa’s largest country into two separate nations.
After 50 years of war and a six-year peace deal, southern Sudanese turned out in high-spirited droves beginning Jan. 9 in a secession vote promised under a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace deal to end the long conflict between Sudan’s undeveloped African south and its Arab government in the north.
Independence fervor was on display in the south during the weeks leading up to the vote, and jubilant voters often waited hours in long lines under the scorching sun to cast their ballots. Complete results will not be released for at least another two weeks, but the outcome is expected to be crushingly in favor of forming a new nation.
“This vote is the final nail in the coffin of our suffering as southern Sudanese,” said Taban Francis, a 31-year civil servant in Juba, the southern capital. “I hope this vote will bring us to an autonomous country.”
Despite concerns that the vote would re-erupt old violence or founder logistically in a region with almost no paved roads, the voting process itself proceeded quietly with few complications.
The peaceful election is likely to be seen as an achievement of international diplomacy, which heavily pressured the Sudanese government in Khartoum to fulfill its side of the peace pact, even if it meant losing a third of its land and 80 percent of its oil reserves.
The United Nations has two peacekeeping missions in Sudan, and the African Union mediated negotiations between the two sides. The U.S., largely responsible for the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which promised the referendum, dedicated a full-time special envoy to Sudan and promised rewards to the Sudanese regime – led by Omar al-Bashir, indicted for genocide at the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur – if it allowed the vote to move forward.
With an internationally recognized independent southern Sudan state now looking likely later this year, attention will switch focus to the plethora of complications involved in tearing apart the 55-year old nation, including a disputed border, oil, debt and citizenship.
Chief on the list of immediate concerns is Abyei, a small region along the border contested by both sides, the most explosive border flashpoint.