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ELECTION-WATCH: Stakes High in What Might be Africa’s 55th State

Miriam Gathigah

Nairobi, Kenya, Jan 7 2011 (IPS) - South Sudan is memorable for unbearably high heat, persistent noise from the generators that help cool the temperatures and glaring poor infrastructure.

South Sudanese ready for referendum. Credit:  USAID

South Sudanese ready for referendum. Credit: USAID

The 10 southern states comprise expansive lands, which are sparsely populated mostly due to the threat of land mines planted in the bushes. This is more evident in Eastern Equatoria State, particularly in Torit, where the war first begun.

Although the south Sudan region is typically characterised by drought and underdevelopment, this strongly contrasts with the fact that it is has immense natural resources. Many say the underdevelopment is due to the antagonistic relationship between the north and the south region.

A relationship that might take on a whole new dimension if the southerners opt for cessation from the North region. On Sunday, close to 4 million voters in southern Sudan will face the choice between separation or unity. The vote will take place over seven days. Their ballot option will be a solitary hand or two clasped together.

Those in the north would like to hold on to the south, while the south seems to want nothing more than cessation which they hope will be an opportunity to become one of Africa’s fastest-growing democracies.

This move is bound to have serious implications for this oil-rich country – for the Sudanese, neighbouring countries and many other foreign countries, which have vested interests.

The strife between the north and south Sudan is complex and is fueled by various factors. “Firstly, the issue of religion is a problem. The north is Islamic and want the rule of law to be based on the Koran. They want a Sudan which is guided by Sharia law,” explains John Idri, a Sudanese who has lived in Kenya for a decade.

He further explains that although south Sudan accounts for an estimated 85 percent of oil banks, “The proceeds seem to benefit the North more than they do the south.”

Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the north and south regions have made efforts to co-exist peacefully. However, the feeling amongst many southerners is that the relationship has not been mutually beneficial.

“For five years we have wanted the north to prove itself to us – that we can relate as equals – but what we continue to experience is more economic, religious and political alienation by the North,” explains Dagiel Kenyi, a businessman in Nairobi.

“The north is populated by Arabs who identify themselves with Arabic nations, while we in the south identify with other African countries, particularly the East African community,” Kenyi further explains.

According to the south Sudan Referendum Commission, of the eight countries where Sudanese ex-patriates will vote from in the coming referendum, out of a total of 60,000 voters Kenya accounts for the highest number of voters (15,063). This is followed closely by Uganda with 13,254 voters.

Due to an erratic relationship, fueled by suspicions between these two regions, south Sudan has not diversified its economy and almost wholly depends on oil for its revenue.

The region is rich in material for construction, with the rocky and expansive lands providing a big opportunity to invest in the construction industry. Currently, southerners do not construct permanent houses – mainly due to the fear that the war may continue. However, this historic referendum is expected to change the situation.

The region is also rich in other minerals such us iron ore, copper, silver and gold. In addition the land, though seemingly dry, is highly arable and in various states maize, wheat, sorghum and various types of fruits can be produced in bulk.

However, that has not happened and south Sudan depends heavily on manufactured products, particularly from Kenya and Uganda.

The southerners even depend on Kenya to grow its banking industry. Last year the government of south Sudan issued a directive that all public servants should be paid through the banks, as opposed to being paid in cash.

At the time of the declaration only an estimated five percent of Sudanese were banking money. Already there are two Kenyan banks that have branched into south Sudan – the Kenya Commercial Bank, which has 15 branches across eight states, as well as Equity bank, which has three branches and two others in the pipeline.

Further, there are five mobile providers, most of them owned by foreign investors including the South African mobile operator, MTN.

Due to the overdependence of the southerners on the East African community, a separation from the North may empower the Southerners to be more self-sufficient.

“Also, there are fears that the relationship between the south and north will be severed for good but that is not true. The north needs us for the oil and we need them for the pipeline which passes through port Sudan,” expounds Dagiel Kenyi.

However, key government figures such as Dr Machar Riek, Vice President of south Sudan, have been quick to point out that the oil will continue to flow between the two regions peacefully. At the moment, each region receives 50 percent of all oil proceeds, as agreed under the CPA.

He further points out that there is more that holds them together, including the River Nile and the railway line.

In the event of a separation, the border between the two regions will stretch over 2,000 km – which will call for the two regions to work together, even as independent nations.

It is for this reason that the Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, sent word to South Sudan expressing the country’s support, regardless of the results. He, however, urged the Sudanese to vote decisively in order to avoid a controversial poll that may do more harm than good. For the south to separate they require at least a 60 percent majority.

Evidently, the referendum presents an entire paradigm shift in the way that South Sudan will run its economy, politics and even religion, should the referendum lead to a separation – emanating in a ripple effect which will be felt across the East African community, as well as the international community.

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