South Sudan: Critical times in run up to referendum

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Within six months, the region of Southern Sudan will decide whether to remain part of Sudan or become an entirely new African state. It is a critical time, and many fear the consequences. This week a high level consultation has brought together members of ACT Alliance and partners in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Delegates were told that the referendum itself will bring profound changes for Sudan and the region.

Speakers at the meeting emphasized the importance of ensuring that events before, during and after the referendum are managed in such a way that peace and the protection of the people of Sudan are preserved.

“We have worked so hard to ensure that we have had peace; the coming weeks and months are very critical for Sudan and will certainly bring changes to this country,” said Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, of the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

The referendum, scheduled for January 2011, will give the opportunity for the people of South Sudan to choose whether to separate from the north and form a new independent country or remain as one country with the north. This process was envisioned by and included in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 which ended decades of war in Sudan.

Critical moment for Africa         

In his opening remarks, Sudan’s ecumenical envoy, Rev. Dr. Sam Kobia, spoke of the historical nature of the forthcoming referendum. “This is a very critical moment in the history of Africa; we are going through a process that has never happened on the continent before.”

Both Rev. Dr. Kobia and Bishop Kondo were speaking at the official opening of the ACT Alliance consultation meeting, which brings together members of the ACT Sudan Forum, civil society organisations working in Sudan, the Sudan Ecumenical Forum and staff members from the ACT Alliance secretariat among other key stakeholders in Sudan.

Key successes in peace and development

The meeting is raising awareness of the humanitarian and development situation in Sudan. In spite of much negative news and information about Sudan, some key successes related to peace, security and development were shared.

“If you compared what we have now in Sudan in terms of peace and development with the situation before the CPA, you will realise that there has been a lot of progress,” said Marina Peter of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum.

So far, successes achieved in Sudan since CPA include the massive repatriation of Sudanese people  and communities living as refugees in neighbouring countries and also as internally displaced in the north. Access to services such as health and education has increased over the years since CPA and there are more community based peace initiatives. The churches have run peace initiatives to tackle cattle raiding and other conflicts at the community levels.

According to Klero Onuha from the African Inland Church in Equitoria, the situation is not bad at all. "We have spent so much time with the communities and right now several peace initiatives following traditional ways of resolving conflicts have been undertaken. Now, even the government is handing over cases to the church to assist in resolving."

Several scenarios and possible consequences for the period leading to the referendum and the post-referendum period were discussed, from the worst to the best case scenario. The worst case scenario included the possibility of war breaking out before, during or after the referendum, leading to an unprecedented humanitarian situation and a possible undermining of progress since the CPA. The best case scenario would be a peaceful referendum and peaceful post-referendum situations both in the north and the south. Nevertheless, the need to ensure that the peace and progress that Sudan, and specifically southern Sudan has achieved since the 2005 CPA was underscored.

Additionally, the role of the churches in this process, which are either members or partners of the ACT Alliance, was affirmed. “Whatever the outcomes of the referendum, the churches will still remain in Sudan and they will play a very crucial role,” said Marina Peter.

According to Rev. Dr. Kobia, very few situations have galvanised ecumenical unity as the Sudan has in terms of length, depth and breadth. He noted that little in known about the good work the church has achieved since the 1950’s when it started its engagement in Sudan.