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Some optimism about Sudan referendum after months of doubts

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Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

(Read caption) Southern Sudanese watch as Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir arrives at the airport in Juba on Jan. 4, 2011. The visit is his last to Juba before the Jan. 9 referendum.

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Throughout November and December, Sudanese officials, international journalists, and Western election observers showed uncertainty about whether Sudan could complete logistical preparations in time for Jan. 9, the date of the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence. With the referendum fast approaching, officials in Sudan and in the US are now sounding confident about the preparations in place for the vote, and journalists like Jeffrey Gettleman are saying the chances of civil war “are slim and getting slimmer.” Potential problems remain, though, especially in the border region of Abyei, whose own referendum has been postponed. The basic picture we get, then, looks positive in South Sudan but less positive for areas outside of the core South that have South Sudanese residents.

Reuters writes about Sudanese and American optimism:

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Almost 4 million southern Sudanese, or roughly half the south’s population, have registered to take part in an independence referendum next week that is likely to split Africa’s largest country in two, officials said on Monday.

The U.S. State Department said it was optimistic ahead of the vote, which is due to begin in six days and marks the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war in Sudan that killed at least 2 million people and destablised much of the region.

Recent remarks and actions from President Omar al Bashir have bolstered optimism about the referendum. Bashir is visiting Southern Sudan today, in a move that a top official in the South called a “good gesture.” Bashir’s visit follows his statement indicating that he will respect the referendum results.

Increasing optimism about the referendum has not canceled out concerns over potential problems elsewhere. For example, Southern Sudanese who live outside of the South face hurdles in voting and fears of repression. According to Reuters, “Only some sixty thousand registered in the diaspora and less than 120,000 in the north, amid accusations of voter intimidation and a fear of reprisals should the south separate.” In addition to those in the diaspora who plan to vote, others in countries like Egypt are watching the referendum closely and are considering returning home. Those refugees will confront serious problems whether they stay in Egypt or try to turn a new leaf in South Sudan.

Of great concern also is Abyei, the oil-rich border region where conflict simmers between Misseriya Arab pastoralists and Ngok Dinka farmers. The rhetoric from the Misseriya side has become even more heated:

Bishtina Mohammed El Salam of the Misseriya, one of two dominant tribes in Abyei, said his people will not accept joining the south following the January 9 referendum.

His tribe shares the region with the Dinka, who say they want to join the south.

“If the Dinka take this decision – to annex Abyei to the south - there will be an immediate war without any excuse,” El Salam told Al Jazeera.

“We think they should be reasonable and think about it. They should know that those who are pushing them to take that decision will not give them any back-up.”

If the referendum in the South goes smoothly and Southern independence results, leaders from North and South Sudan, in concert with local leaders and international support, will have to find a resolution in Abyei if they want to quash the potential for violence. The situation in Abyei continues to look grim, but with the chances of a successful referendum appearing brighter, perhaps tension can be contained to Abyei and then carefully deflated.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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