After decades of marginalization and persecution by its own government, this month, January 2011, South Sudan is deciding its own future. The last step of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) provides the South with a Referendum on Secession. On January 9, the South Sudanese all over the world began voting for either continued unity with Sudan or independence as a free nation. The voting will continue until Saturday, January 15 at 5:00 p.m.
Few doubt that the South will vote for separation and independence. Of all the people around the world that have been besieged by Islamic supremacism, the South Sudanese are those who have most strongly and consistently resisted. And it has been a costly resistance. Over 500,000 died in the first phase of the genocide, the Anyaya (“snake venom” in the Madi language) Rebellion, 1955-1972. When war began again in 1983, it left over 2.5 million dead and over 5 million displaced throughout South Sudan and other disputed areas. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, the massive loss of civilian life (as of 2001, one out of every five South Sudanese had died as a result of the war) was the largest civilian death toll of any war since World War II.
According to Dr. Milliard Burr in Quantifying Genocide in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, the deaths from Sudan Air Force attacks on civilian targets were almost impossible to determine “because the aerial sorties number in the thousands, the bombs dropped probably can be calculated in the tens of thousands, and the southern Sudanese villages attacked numbered in the hundreds.” In addition to schools, hospitals, and marketplaces, churches were common targets. Virulent Christian persecution throughout Sudan included whole villages crucified or rounded up in churches and burned to death, as well as individuals tortured and killed. Tens of thousands of civilians died as an indirect result of bombing attacks as they were driven from their homes. Once displaced, villagers died from sickness, disease, and starvation.
Khartoum also armed Arab militias to conduct “scorched earth” attacks and slave raids. This technique helped “clear the land” for oil development in various regions. Oil companies in business with the Government of Sudan were given proof that their partnership was supporting the killing and enslaving of thousands of innocent civilians, but remained unmoved. (No American oil companies have been involved. The U.S. continues to have sanctions on Sudan’s oil industry.)
It is not surprising that the Sudanese regime also promoted slavery. The Arabic word for “black” is the same as the word for slave, abid. Tens of thousands of women and children from South Sudan were taken in slave raids over the years. They were gang-raped and mutilated, branded, and kept in pens like animals, given food not fit for animals, and treated as less than animals. They were forced to take Arabic names, speak Arabic, and to convert to Islam. “Masters” who were displeased with them beat them or chopped off their limbs. Other southern and Nuba children were abducted and held in “vocational training camps” where they were forced to convert to Islam and pressed into military service against their own people. Former U.N. Special Rapporteur for Sudan Gaspar Biro reported that boys as young as eleven years old were sent to the front of the offensive.
In some cases children escaped from attacks waged on their villages. About 30,000 of them, mostly young boys under the age of ten, trekked over 400 miles to Ethiopia. Some 16,000 of these boys finally ended up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. These are the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who can be found across the United States today.
Hundreds of thousands in the South and the Nuba Mountains starved. Food was used as a weapon of war, exacerbating problems already created by famine, drought, floods, and infestations. At the most critical junctures, the Sudanese regime barred all food aid from starving civilians, and U.N. associated relief groups complied. Lines of desperate people waiting for food were often the targets of bombing raids and helicopter gunship attacks since reports were given to Khartoum of where food would be distributed. Government troops garrisoned in the South ate while the civilians starved. At other times international food aid, distributed by government-associated relief groups, was offered only to those who would convert to Islam and live in government “peace camps.” One of the first actions on Sudan of President George W. Bush was to change the way U.S. aid was given to South Sudan, enabling more independent delivery outside of the United Nations program by independent NGO’s , mostly Christian ministries.
Steps to Peace
The September 6, 2001 appointment of former senator John Danforth as the Sudan Special Envoy, as well as the Sudan Peace Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, helped pave the way to the peace talks that eventually led to the CPA. Coincidentally or not, the names of the three main locations of the peace talks leading to the CPA actually symbolized what was taking place. The signing of the first protocol in July 2002, bringing a ceasefire, seemed too good to be true. It took place at Machakos, a formerly arid, unproductive area that had been the subject of so successful an agricultural experiment that it was known as the “Machakos Miracle.” The final protocols for peace were finally agreed to after a long, hard struggle at Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, the British misspelling of the Masai word Nai’posha which means “rough water.” The January 9, 2005 signing took place at Nairobi’s Nyayo Stadium. Nyayo means “footsteps.” Now the final footsteps on the road to freedom have arrived. Dan Griffin of Catholic Relief Services said that this is “no less momentous than the fall of apartheid in South Africa.”
Southerners are eagerly voting for freedom. Although charged with “making unity attractive” to Southerners, the regime has made the dream of independence all the more attractive. Khartoum delayed or altered provisions and violated terms of the peace agreement. And it continues waging war against Darfur, and marginalizing Sudan’s other indigenous black Africans, including the Beja of eastern Sudan and northern Nubians.
In his recent trip to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, President Al-Bashir seemed reconciled to the prospect of an independent South Sudan. But for years he has claimed that maintaining unity is in the best interest of both north and south. In a June 6, 2010 Sudan Tribune article Al-Bashir warned that “a new state in the south could ignite a series of problems" and that "parts of the border could be explosive” like “Ethiopia and Eritrea” or “India and Pakistan." It pointed to ethnic violence (much of which is caused by NCP-armed militias). It condemned government corruption (while offering incentives to vulnerable officials). Even if the actual voting process goes smoothly, Khartoum may try to undermine the new nation by creating conflicts that make it appear as if South Sudan is a “failed” state. And disturbingly, the Obama Administration was not supporting robustly South Sudan against these accusations.
There are deep concerns about the process of voting and that the vote for secession will be free and fair. For instance, it is imperative that the South Sudanese who registered to vote, when registration took place in November, do actually vote. There must be a 60% turnout of the registered voters, so any attempt to change the vote could include preventing registered citizens from voting. A 51% vote for secession will bring about South Sudan’s independence. There is also concern for Southerners living in the north, who have received both veiled and unveiled threats. But in spite of worries about voter fraud, intimidation, and even threats from the Islamist Somali jihadists of Al Shabaab turning up as suicide bombers and/or attacking voting stations, the people of South Sudan are determined to be free.
Salva Kiir Mayardit’s Southern government is committed to freedom and secular democracy for all Sudanese. Advancing this commitment should be the goal of U.S. policy in Sudan and the incentive to robust support of South Sudan at this juncture. Even now, as the South Sudanese are voting, Americans should urge the U.S. government to strengthen even more its commitment to the Referendum – the last, crucial step of the CPA road, to development in South Sudan, by lifting any remaining sanctions against the South and encouraging U.S. business involvement in partnership with the South Sudanese, as well as increasing commitment to all of Sudan’s marginalized peoples. May the road to South Sudan’s Referendum lead to a road for freedom for all of Sudan!
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).