The first hurdle has been cleared. Under the rules governing southern Sudan’s independence referendum, the result will only be valid if at least 60% of those registered cast a ballot. On Wednesday — three days into a week-long voting period — this figure had been met and surpassed. The result will stand.

The voting process this week has been marred by several  violent clashes — mostly centred on the predictable hotspot of Abyei — and at least 30 people have been killed. The worst incident occurred on Tuesday in the northern province of South Kurdafan. 10 southerners were ambushed and massacred while making their way south to vote. Those behind the attack are reported to be members of the Arab Misseriya tribe — the same group that has been involved in the tensions in Abyei.

Despite such incidents the referendum can still be considered largely peaceful.  As this reporter commented in a previous article, so long as violence does not become systematic or widespread, the referendum will be viewed as a success.

There are cautiously positive signs too from the major political players.  Sudan’s President Bashir has reportedly given special election monitor Jimmy Carter indications that should the south secede the Khartoum government would not seek to pass on any of Sudan’s current foreign debt to the new nation.

Given that Sudanese debt levels currently stand at about $38billion, this is a serious commitment from Khartoum. On the other hand, according to ICC chief prosecutor Louis Moreno-Ocampo, Bashir has personally deposited about $9 billon of stolen Sudanese revenue in foreign bank accounts — so there is always a chance he is planning on repaying much of the debt out of his own pocket.

More likely Bashir is betting that Sudan will not have to pay back its debt at all. The US has indicated it is prepared to remove sanctions from Bashir’s tyrannical regime if Khartoum recognises and respects the outcome of the referendum. In an Op-Ed in Sunday’s NY Times Barack Obama himself repeated emphatically that taking Sudan of its list of states that sponsor terrorism would be the reward for good behaviour. Sudanese leaders have made it equally clear that they would like to see the cancelling of foreign debt as part of the package.

There are reports that the Sudanese army has amassed as many as 55,000 troops in strategic locations along the southern border. Military build-up is perhaps to be expected in such dramatic times but, if confirmed, such a large mobilisation significantly undermines overtures of peace.

This is even more worrying in view of government documents reportedly uncovered by Small Arms Survey, which are said to contain orders for distribution of weapons to tribal leaders. The documents were allegedly signed by the Defence Minister. The recipients of the weapons include the Misseriya in Abyei and South Kurdafan. Such a clear link between Khartoum and this week’s violence is profoundly alarming.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey