After a week of voting, the polls closed on Saturday in the South Sudanese independence referendum. It will take a while to finish counting — infrastructure in South Sudan is pretty basic — but there’s no need to wait on the result. The only (small) element of doubt had been whether the turnout would pass the required 60% mark; it did, comfortably.
There’s never been any doubt as to which way the South Sudanese would vote. No one expects the vote for secession to be less than 90%; a sample of early counting released by the regional government shows the yes vote on 97.6%, with a turnout above 94% — consistent with prior surveys. (For comparison, East Timor voted 78.5% for independence in 1999.)
The real interest is in what happens next. What’s supposed to happen is that South Sudan will become an independent nation on July 9 this year, the sixth anniversary of the peace agreement that ended the civil war and set the stage for last week’s voting.
That will be a big milestone: the first time any of Africa’s colonial-drawn boundaries have been altered. There are plenty of other candidates for revision, and many African governments will be watching the process with some nervousness — and perhaps with some incredulity as to whether president Omar al-Bashir and the northerners who have run the country since independence are really going to allow this to happen.
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But the signs so far are very good — much better than had been feared just a few months ago. Al-Bashir has spoken clearly for peace and reconciliation, and while no doubt there will be haggling over the border and associated resource issues, there is growing confidence that the separation will happen without further bloodshed.
There are good reasons for Sudan not to repeat the experience of East Timor. One is evident from the voting figures: there was a bloc of anti-independence sentiment in East Timor that gave some hope to the Indonesians and helped to foment disorder after the referendum. The northerners have no such illusions in Sudan and no such base to work with.
Another reason is that peace in Sudan was very much in the interests of the whole country. The East Timorese insurgency was never more than a minor irritant to Indonesia, but the Sudanese civil war killed more than a million people and amounted to a huge drain on resources.
But there’s also perhaps a lesson here about different ways of treating rogue states. The West has taken a hardline approach to Al-Bashir, applying sanctions against his regime after he was indicted by the international criminal court for alleged genocide in Darfur. The promise of lifting sanctions seems to be a major ingredient in his newly co-operative attitude.
In Indonesia, by contrast, western countries for years treated General Suharto with kid gloves — but to no effect when it came to East Timor.
The lesson that the dictator and his successors took from experience was that as far as the West was concerned they could get away with murder, and many of them did.
This week the hope is that in South Sudan the killing really has stopped.