Reporting In From Our Sudan Bureau…

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up.

President Barack Obama at NYT:

NOT every generation is given the chance to turn the page on the past and write a new chapter in history. Yet today — after 50 years of civil wars that have killed two million people and turned millions more into refugees — this is the opportunity before the people of southern Sudan.

Over the next week, millions of southern Sudanese will vote on whether to remain part of Sudan or to form their own independent nation. This process — and the actions of Sudanese leaders — will help determine whether people who have known so much suffering will move toward peace and prosperity, or slide backward into bloodshed. It will have consequences not only for Sudan, but also for sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

The historic vote is an exercise in self-determination long in the making, and it is a key part of the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war in Sudan. Yet just months ago, with preparations behind schedule, it was uncertain whether this referendum would take place at all. It is for this reason that I gathered with leaders from Sudan and around the world in September to make it clear that the international community was united in its belief that this referendum had to take place and that the will of the people of southern Sudan had to be respected, regardless of the outcome.

In an important step forward, leaders from both northern and southern Sudan — backed by more than 40 nations and international organizations — agreed to work together to ensure that the voting would be timely, peaceful, free and credible and would reflect the will of the Sudanese people. The fact that the voting appears to be starting on time is a tribute to those in Sudan who fulfilled their commitments. Most recently, the government of Sudan said that it would be the first to recognize the south if it voted for independence.

Now, the world is watching, united in its determination to make sure that all parties in Sudan live up to their obligations. As the referendum proceeds, voters must be allowed access to polling stations; they must be able to cast their ballots free from intimidation and coercion. All sides should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or provocative actions that could raise tensions or prevent voters from expressing their will.

Baobab at The Economist:

Sudanese in the often remote countryside have seen relatively few benefits so far but in the capital, Juba, life has changed dramatically. In 2005 South Sudan’s leaders lived in tents, ate on the ground and had almost no means to communicate with their people or the outside world. Today, Juba is booming. It does not yet match the glitz of Khartoum but it is no longer quite such a backwater. Its airport is still housed in a shack without air-conditioning but some 80 flights take off and land every day now, and a new terminal building is rising by the landing strip.

New restaurants and bars are sprouting up everywhere. Government ministers (many of whom have swapped their uniforms for sharp business suits) like to go to Da Vinci, an Italian eatery on the banks of the Nile. Foreign aid workers prefer Logali House, known for its fast internet access. East Africans gather at Home & Away for Thai food. Ukrainian and Russian pilots can be found at Oasis Camp and Sudanese hipsters, many of them returning from abroad, go to Havana, a bar set up by some of the so-called Cuban Jubans, a group of south Sudanese who went off to see Fidel a few decades ago and are drifting back now.

But residents also report that crime has increased. It is mostly opportunistic and suspicions tends to fall on the growing community of slum-dwellers. Muggings and armed robberies are common and aid agencies impose midnight to sunrise curfews on their expatriate employees. Most embassies and UN sites are heavily guarded with razor wire on top of their high walls. The Warrior private-security company is doing good business. Government security, by comparison, is surprisingly lax. Anyone can wander into the parliament and it probably wouldn’t be that hard to drive on to the airfield.

Still, traffic policemen have been swamping the roads of the capital in the last few weeks. Apparently they are recruits from a new police academy who have graduated but were kept on in Juba to vote in the referendum (since they had registered there). At times two or three of them guard one road turn-off, stopping traffic to allow a single car to pull out. Most roads are still unpaved and turn into terrible bogs when it rains so having a 4×4 is very useful. Traffic can be surprisingly busy. New cars are rolling into town every day, especially expensive ones including Hummers. Drivers are expensive too. Having your own chauffeur will set you back $100 a day. A few years ago, when cars were scarcer, it was $50 a trip no matter how short. Those working in Juba must be hoping the same will happen to prices for private gyms. One place quotes $1,000 a month for membership. There isn’t much choice.

Dan Morrison at Slate:

Efforts to secure the referendum have taken a nasty turn for some Arab residents of the south, however. More than 4 million people registered to vote, among them a farmer named Adam Ismail, but Ismail won’t be placing his fingerprint on a paper ballot this week.

A resident of a disputed region called Fokhar on Sudan’s north-south border in Upper Nile state, Ismail and more than 1,000 other Arabs have abandoned their homes and fields and fled to the north after a campaign of intimidation by southern soldiers.

The Arab tribes of Fokhar have long enjoyed good relations with their neighbors from the Dinka tribe, Ismail said, and the locality even includes a few mixed families, but the Arabs have been viewed with hostile suspicion by local commanders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

A campaign of intimidation, including arrests and interrogations, night visits by uniformed gunmen, and the shooting death of one member of the community, escalated last November, after local Arabs began registering to vote. Nearly 10 percent of the community has fled north to White Nile state, abandoning their fields and some livestock.

“They were threatening us to not vote for unity,” Ismail told me by telephone. “It was our right to register, and we all registered—that’s why this is happening.” Ismail’s family, and nearly 250 other families of the Shukriya tribe, are beginning their seventh week in camps north of the border. Their makeshift shelters are taking on signs of permanence. It is a rare and unfortunate turn of the Sudanese wheel—Arabs dispossessed by African gunmen because of their religion and tribe.

Maggie Fick at Foreign Policy:

Still, there is a danger in celebrating too early. Voters may call for an independent Southern Sudan as they cast their ballots this week, but the means by which the new country would split off is still subject to difficult negotiations and thorny details. There is no agreement over a border, citizenship, the sharing of natural resources, and one contentious border region called Abyei. So while its people are celebrating, Southern Sudan’s leaders are eager to get back to the negotiating table with Khartoum, where a long agenda awaits after the voting finishes. If international attention wanes after the votes are cast, those negotiations could easily take a turn for the worse.

It would be impossible for there not be a “hangover” following the announcement of the results of the ballot, which will not be certified and officially announced until Feb. 6 at the earliest, according to the referendum commission. The voting here in Juba has captured international attention. News crews from around the world have flooded the city, usually a relatively quiet capital with an expatriate community made up mostly of aid workers and frontier businessmen.

There was also a huge diplomatic push to get to this moment. Last fall, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration ramped up its efforts to ensure that the voting was carried off on time. The White House sent its special envoy, Scott Gration, as well as a seasoned Africa hand from the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton Lyman, to do the diplomatic legwork on the ground. A high-level meeting in New York during the U.N. General Assembly in late September ensured that the international community was acting in lockstep — and around the clock — to help Sudan hold the referendum on time and in peace.

But the spotlight may well lift after the last voters go to polls later this week — at exactly the moment when the politics of secession will become even more fraught. From the moment the results are known, the clock starts ticking on independence talks: The African Union-brokered negotiations between the ruling party in Khartoum and the governing party in the south — now on hold while the voting takes place — have to be completed by the summer. The 2005 north-south peace agreement governing the referendum calls for an “interim period” between the voting and secession, to expire on July 9, 2011. This is also the date the south will declare independence if the referendum passes.

John Avlon at Daily Beast:

Reports of the violence have thus far failed to dampen the hopeful tone of Sunday’s voting. But serious hurdles await the fledgling state. A new government will need to be formed, and official independence will not be granted until July 9. This gives the north at least six months to disrupt the transition and derail the secession after the international camera crews depart. And it’s anybody’s guess whether Monday’s clashes portend greater conflict.

While President Bashir has earned a reputation as an untrustworthy negotiator, he recently has said repeatedly that he will accept the results of the referendum. In a telephone call on Sunday with reporter Ellen Knickmeyer on behalf of The Daily Beast, Rabie Abdullati Obeid, a senior member of the president’s National Congress Party, reiterated that pledge. “No, no, no, there’s not any possibility of war,” Obeid said, speaking from Khartoum. “Whatever the case, whatever the outcome of the referendum, be it secession or unity, there’s no inclination to war.”

Nonetheless, a contentious issue remains in the fate of the still-contested border state of Abyei. In closed-door meetings, tribal leaders made it clear that their people’s allegiance is with the south, though they are legally barred from participating in the referendum. Their frustration could result in a popular declaration of affiliation with the south at any time, which could in turn provoke an attack. Tribal proxy wars have proved a devastatingly effective tactic for the north in the past, with the town of Abyei entirely destroyed as recently as 2008.

“If the north thinks they could do something and get away with it without dramatic serious implications, they are making the biggest mistake of a lifetime,” Senator Kerry told me before he left Sudan on Sunday afternoon. “I think they know that. I think both sides are committed to avoiding a war. But sometimes things happen on the ground that can spiral out of control.”

Mindful of such risks, Clooney and Prendergast have organized a privately financed satellite project that provides real-time imaging of the Sudanese north-south border to interested global citizens from their computers. With its ability to keep public attention focused on any troop build-up along the border, this new tool is an example of the kind of innovation and continued international commitment that will be necessary to complete the peaceful transition of Southern Sudan to independence.

Even given the many challenges ahead—and with the balance of the week’s polling activity still to come—one could not help but savor this first day in Southern Sudan’s civic resolve, for it represented the at least temporary triumph of hope over hate. One-time killing fields are being transformed into a fledgling democracy that promises to be an ally of the United States, with English as its official language. This story is far from over, the more so since the world cannot afford to turn the page assuming a happy ending. But it was a day of unique, hard-won, and memorable promise, as Valentino Achak Deng reminded me: “It’s like the people in the United States almost 300 years ago,” he said. “We are determined to be a nation of our own.”

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