Sudanese election = new country?

Starting this Sunday, January 9, Sudan, the largest country in Africa (area-wise, not population-wise) will hold an unusual week-long election — the South of Sudan will be deciding whether it wants to leave Sudan to create a new country.

map source:,_July_2006.svg 

Here’s what the ballot will look like, courtesy of an article from mid-November:

South Sudan referendum kicks off with registration

Why does the ballot look like that?  Why the big images instead of words?  Well, most of southern Sudan (about 60%) is illiterate, as shown in this map from the BBC.

So let’s think about this, and let’s look again at that map, because there’s a lot going on there…

Sudan has a population of about 42 million, with about eight million people in the blue regions.  Of those eight million, about five million are over 17 years old and eligible to vote.  About four million of those five million have registered to vote.  If they vote to leave (one hand instead of two on the ballot), the blue regions — and possibly the red region of Abeyi — will form a new country, which may tentatively be called “South Sudan.”

It’s not every day that a new country is born.  And it’s quite unusual for such a birth to be non-violent.  This April, the United States will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War, which began when the Southern states seceded from the North, and a four-year civil war ensued.

Of course, Sudan’s process has been far from non-violent.  The country had been fighting a North-South civil war for more than 20 years, and that war has killed at least two million people and displaced four million more.

Here’s how the election process will work:

“The total number of people registered in the south Sudan, in the eight countries abroad and the states in northern Sudan, stands at 3,930,916,” Chan Reec, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), said on Monday in Juba.
However, the vast majority were in the south, with just 116,860 in the north — 2.9 percent — and 60,241 outside Sudan, or 1.5 percent.
Overall, 51 percent are women, Reec told reporters in southern capital.
“By the latest tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011) all the ballot papers will be in the centres,” said Reec, who also heads the referendum commission’s bureau in the south.
“We are really 100 percent prepared for the great day.”
The registration process was launched on November 15 for a two-week period but extended by one week because of high demand in the south and to encourage a larger turnout by southerners living in north Sudan.
Voter registration also took place in neighbouring Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, as well as in Australia, Britain, the United States and Canada.
Those eligible to vote include permanent residents of south Sudan since 1956, when the country gained independence, and those who can trace their ancestry to an established south Sudan tribe.
Observers are predicting overwhelming support for secession.
But for the vote to be valid at least 60 percent of those registered must cast their ballot, and there are concerns about the transparency of a voting process that will mostly take place in one of Africa’s least developed regions.


Here’s a summary of what’s at stake (green text from All Africa)

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since a coup in 1989, is the only sitting head of state to have been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, stemming from actions by Sudanese militias in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where the United Nations says 300,000 people have died. That was a really long sentence — the second part of it can be paraphrased this way: Bashir is accused of genocide in Sudan, where at least 300,000 people have died and where many rapes have occurred. 

(Here’s a picture of Omar al Bashir, as well as a blurb about him from Wikipedia)

Al-Bashir is a controversial figure both in Sudan and worldwide. In July 2008, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno Ocampo, accused al-Bashir of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.[8] The court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on 4 March 2009 on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for genocide.[9][10] However on 12 July 2010, after a lengthy appeal by the prosecution, the Court held that there was indeed sufficient evidence for charges of genocide to be brought and issued a second warrant containing three separate counts. The new warrant, as with the first, will be delivered to the Sudanese government, which is unlikely to execute it.[10] Al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state ever indicted by the ICC as well as the first to be charged with genocide.[10] The court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and the People’s Republic of China.[11]


The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if Sudan’s President, al-Bashir, abides by the almost certain decision by southerners to become Africa’s 54th nation. In a presidential memorandum on 19 November, Obama eased American sanctions to allow the export of U.S. computers for use in voting.

So that’s interesting — the US prohibits computers from coming into Sudan, but it will allow them to help make sure the election results are counted accurately.

Developments in the remaining days before the high-stakes vote will be closely watched by the people and governments of both north and south, as well as by the world community. But Sudan experts warn that the referendum will not be an end to the story but the beginning of a challenging period, when all parties will need to cooperate to avert a return to a war that could destroy the fragile peace the south now enjoys.


Here are a neat series of maps from the BBC, which show that South Sudan is essentially its own entity already (the education disparity map pictured above is from this source).

We’ll see what happens next week. 

This NPR piece from Friday, January 7, predicts that the hard part will be what happens after the election, which will almost certainly be for separation rather than unity.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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