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Al-Jazeera - January 5, 2011

An account of key events that shaped the road to Sudan's January 9 vote

Why a referendum?

Sudan's north-south civil war was Africa's longest running civil conflict, flaring first in 1955.

The first civil war between the dominant north and the south, which wanted regional autonomy, lasted till 1972. Half a million people died over the 17 years of conflict.

It got reignited in 1983 when the agreement that ended the fighting failed to completely dispel the tensions. 

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the second phase and promised southerners self-determination through a referendum on independence from the north.

Since then the northern ruling National Congress Party [NCP] and the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement [SPLM] have bickered over implementing almost every detail of the 2005 accord which had unity as an option. Few now believe that option in on the table.

Many southerners believe they are ethnically or religiously distinct from the mostly Arab and Muslim north. An antagonistic history of war and slave trading that has haunted north- south relations even before Sudan's independence in 1956 from the British and Egyptians.

Southerners say economic boom and development has benefited only the north, especially the Khartoum elite.

Why the 9th of January?

The CPA is set to expire on the 9 July 2011, and it calls for the referendum to take place six months prior to that date.  The referendum is a Sudanese process, organised jointly by the CPA parties and conducted by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC).

Who can vote?

According to the referendum commission, anyone who has a parent or ancestor from a southern tribe indigenous to the south can vote. Also anyone who has been permanently resident, or whose parents or grandparents have been in the south since the January 1, 1956 independence can vote. 

Southerners whose families left the south before independence must return south to register and vote.

Voting will occur not only in southern Sudan, but throughout Sudan for people of southern origin, and in eight countries that have large populations of southern Sudanese (Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

However the vague guidelines and decades of inter-marriage and movement of tribes means it may be difficult to verify who is a southerner or not.

Those planning the plebiscite estimate there are around 5.5 million southerners eligible to vote inside and outside Sudan although not all will register.

What will they be voting for?

People of south Sudan will choose either to remain part of a unified Sudan or to secede. Simultaneously, people of the oil rich "Abyei" region, located at the North-South border, will choose to either join the South or remain with the North in the event of a Southern secession.

How will it work?

The vote will be by secret ballot and had its own registration process.

The final decision on the referendum requires a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one vote cast, contingent upon 60 per cent of registered voters casting their votes.

The referendum commission has approved a budget of $372 million, but with a reduced timetable it will likely cost less.

Some 10,800 staff will work in almost 3,000 referendum centres. More than 14,000 police will secure the process in the south. Voting is     due to begin on Jan. 9 and last one week.

Who are the main players?

The north's dominant National Congress Party(NCP): Supports unity but says it would respect the result of the vote.

Sudan's People's Liberation Movement (SPLM): The biggest party in the South. Says the South is voting "for freedom". The SPLM and other opposition parties in Sudan united under the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) signed with the NCP the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005.

Both, the NCP and the SPLM, strengthened their already strong grip on their respective halves of the country with overwhelming victories in April elections.

Omar al-Bashir: The president of Sudan pledged to respect the will of the people of Southern Sudan should they choose to secede. He came to power in 1989 when he led a bloodless military coup that ousted the government of prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as the first to be charged with genocide. The ICC has issued an arrest warrant against him.

Salva Kiir Mayardit: Was sworn in as the president of the government of south Sudan and the first vice president of Sudan on the 11th of August 2005. He was the deputy of John Garang, the charismatic founder of the SPLM whodied in a plane crash in July 2005. Kiir has a turbulent relationship with the NCP and has warned of an outbreak of violence if the referendum is postponed.

There are other key political figures in Sudan that we should keep an eye on including  Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the National Umma Party, one of the main opposition parties in the north, and Hassan al-Turabi, a veteran Islamist political leader who supported Bashir's coup in 1989. Relations between the two men turned sour however, andTurabi was arrested and released several times. He was finally released in July 2010. Turabi leads the Popular National Party.

What are the sticking issues?

The leadership in the North and the South remain divided on a number of issues related to the upcoming referendum, including:

The North-South border demarcation: The two parties (NCP and SPLM) have still not agreed on 20 per cent of their shared border despite years of debate and experts' reports. Northern and southern armies have already accused each other of building up troops near 'Heglig', a central oilfield claimed by both sides and a potential flashpoint. Some tribes along the border are known to be arming themselves, in some cases with the support of the armies of the north and the south. It creates a series of flashpoints along the line of division, one of the most volatile of which may be Abyei.

The disputed 'Abyei' region: The two sides have not agreed on the composition of the referendum committee and remain at loggerheads over who has the right to vote in the oil rich region on the 9th of January.

Oil revenue sharing: The two sides have not reached a deal on how oil revenues will be shared. Crude provides around 45 per cent of government revenues in the north and up to 98 per cent in the south. Most of known reserves lie in the south but the only way to get them to market at present lies through the north's refineries and port.

Citizenship: There could be widespread unrest and displacement if NCP ministers go through with threats to cancel the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of southerners living in the north after the secession vote. And whereas the government of south Sudan estimates the southern population in the north at some 1.5 million, the North has put the figure at between 2.5 and 5 million, in what the south sees as Khartoum's attempt to register ghost voters so as to make the 60 per cent voter turnout unachievable.

Grazing rights: Sudan is home to a number of nomadic tribes, many of whom cross the line of the proposed border to feed and water their cattle. The question of what they do and where they go has still to be looked at.

Hegemony: Many of the smaller tribes of southern Sudan are concerned about being dominated by the bigger tribes, they fear the hegemony of the Dinka tribe since Salva Kiir and most of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership is Dinka.

Bad debt: Northern and southern leaders have still not agreed how much of Sudan's bad debt the south would have to share if its population, as widely expected, chooses secession. The World Bank estimates that Sudan had a total bad debt of around $25 billion.


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