As Southern Sudanese people turn out to the polls today to vote on whether they will remain united with Northern Sudan or become Africa’s newest independent nation, hope is on the horizon. The overwhelming voter turnout and jubilation at the polls, is a reflection of people’s strong desire to become first-class citizens of their own sovereign nation and to free themselves from decades of oppression and marginalization by successive Northern regimes. As a Northern Sudanese, I cannot help but feel hopeful and jubilant about the self-determination of a people, who are inching closer towards a dream for which millions of lives have been sacrificed. The fulfillment of their dream gives us as Northern Sudanese hope that we can continue carrying forward the demands of a liberation struggle that envisioned a Sudan in which wealth and power is more equitably distributed and where everyone regardless of ethnicity, faith or gender is treated with respect and dignity.
At the same time, I am wary of what an independent Southern Sudan may mean for the rest of Sudan, going forward. A referendum to determine the future of Abyei, a small disputed area between the north and south, was tabled partly because the Sudanese government is not quite ready to part with what lies underneath its soil. A vote for secession will give the south control of about 80 % of Sudan’s current oil production of 490,000 barrels a day. This will represent a drastic shift from the 50:50 share agreed upon during the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, which ended the 22 year civil war between the north and south. Because much of the oil is along the border however, and northern Sudan controls both the pipelines and technology to transport and export the oil, the fate of Abyei remains unclear.
In the meantime, the burden of these potential losses is likely to be carried by those already marginalized and disenfranchised in Northern Sudan (which includes Darfur). In the days leading up to this historic referendum for instance, the Sudanese government raised the price of fuel and sugar as part of a new policy of bolstering a budget that will be heavily hit by the nearly 70% oil revenue losses, expected once the South secedes. According to economic experts, the new increases reflect the “price of separation” from the country’s south. These price increases, have already caused suffering in the war-torn region of Darfur, where basic food items such as grains and vegetables are becoming more expensive as transportation costs rise. For the millions of displaced Darfurians still living in the squalor of camps and dependent on food aid an increase in fuel prices also has implications on food delivery and access to water as fuel to run water pumps becomes scarce.
Sudan is currently sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer, behind Nigeria and Angola, providing China alone with 30% of the oil that fuels its factories. And yet very little of Sudan’s oil profits have benefited its people. Instead, oil companies primarily from China and Malaysia have been providing the technology and infrastructure to explore, exploit and export the oil while sharing the profits with the elites in power. Khartoum’s regime is said to have siphoned off as much as 40% of total oil revenue through various forms of mis-pricing, essentially lining its pockets, instead of taking on the task of developing vast regions of the country that have been neglected and underdeveloped for decades.
When a regime driven by such greed loses its grip on power, it tends to tighten its grip before fully losing control. President Omar Al-Bashir’s latest remarks on the eve of this referendum, demonstrate this tendency quite poignantly. In the days leading up to the vote, he announced that were the South to secede, he would change the constitution in the North to impose Sharia law and ensure that Islam and Arabic are the official religion and language, respectively. In addition, he declared that the 1.5 million Southern Sudanese living in the north would lose citizenship rights, and that those working in the public service sector, would be removed from their positions. These policies mirror the type of marginalization and exclusion Southern Sudanese people have been fighting against for decades. The people of Sudan belong to over 597 ethnic groups and speak over 200 languages and dialects. Of those ethnic groups over half identify as indigenous African, 39% identify as Afro-Arab, 70% are Muslim, 25% follow indigenous traditions and 5% are Christian. If the South secedes, these demographics will shift but the cultural diversity and religious pluralism of the country will remain intact. Africans, who do not speak Arabic as their first language will continue to constitute a majority in the north. And while most are muslim, many do not adhere to the practices and interpretation of Islam put forth by the ruling elite. Forcefully imposing a mono-cultural, national identity on a majority which is already marginalized is a dangerous project, which could potentially lead to future demands for secession.
As we witness our Southern Sudanese brothers and sisters cast their votes and exercise their right to self-determination, it is therefore, my hope that we in the north will take it upon ourselves to organize at the grassroots level and in the diaspora, around an alternative project which recognizes our people’s diversity as its strength. This historic referendum represents a failure on our government’s behalf to make unity a viable option. It also however, represents our own complicity and silence around a project that could ultimately lead to the fracturing of our nation, if left unchallenged. More importantly perhaps, we cannot rely on outsiders with a variety of motives and agendas, to challenge this project for us. It has to come from within, with the support and solidarity of those, who respect Sudanese sovereignity and leadership and have the best interest of all Sudanese people at heart.