Now that the Southern Sudan Referrendum is Over…What Next?

AWEIL, Sudan—Tallying of the nearly four million ballots cast in Southern Sudan’s self-determination earlier this month is still ongoing, but the writing is on the wall—or to be exact, posted on the commission’s official website: more than 99% of Southern Sudanese people favor secession. All of the observation missions watching the vote have already deemed it to be “credible” and up to international standards, and the preliminary results indicate that the referendum indeed represents the will of the vast majority of southerners.

Despite some potential hiccups mostly related to overly high—think 100 plus percent—turnout in some areas across the south the process is undeniably a shining moment in the recent history of a country that has endured more violence and suffering than most.

The referendum is indeed a cause for rejoicing for the people of Southern Sudan, but as the International Crisis Group’s Zach Vertin rightly noted in an op-ed this week, it is “not the finish line but the critical first step on the path to an independent and democratic state,” meaning that “monumental tasks lie ahead” for the world’s newest nation.

I had a taste of this reality today when a Southern Sudanese told me that “the referendum is the only thing that united us southerners.” He believes that one of the hardest tasks of the southern government in the coming years will be to create the idea of being a Southern Sudanese citizen—an idea that will arguably be foreign to many of
these citizens.

This evening, as a rosy orange sun cast a glow over the chalky dust-filled streets of Aweil, a town not far from the south’s border with Darfur, the sounds of children singing and beating drums in a schoolyard mixed with the call to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mud hut mosque. Identity in Sudan is complex, and it stands to be even more so after the country breaks in two. As in every country, being a citizen of Southern Sudan will mean different things to different citizens, but there has to be a common thread that strings everyone together. After my friend made the above comment, he proceeded to give me an extensive history lesson on “the struggle,” speaking with pride and deep knowledge about the causes of the south’s two post-independence rebellions against regimes in Khartoum. He drew upon stories of battles fought in areas of the south that he has never visited but that appear vividly in his oral retelling of years of bloody conflict that eventually led to the south gaining the chance to decide its own destiny in a self-determination vote.

If this isn’t pride for a nation and in a group of people than I don’t know what is.
But the new Southern Sudan will be about more than the struggle of the past, and it will be a new struggle for the new country’s leaders to forge a path that includes not only those groups who fought in the war but also those people who were born in refugee camps in East Africa, who grew up in Nebraska, who studied at Oxford and who drive motorcycle taxis in Juba. I look forward to seeing where this new path
leads, and I am optimistic that it will be possible for southerners to unite on the basis of a new identity that goes beyond the war and the referendum but that recognizes the importance of these processes in the history of this new nation.