Brinksmanship, Delay and Broken Agreements: The Southern Sudan Independence Referendum

John Siebert Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2010 Volume 31 Issue 4

It was under a tree in a dusty field in Southern Sudan in September 2008. The research interview was over, but the truck to take us to lunch hadn’t arrived. They asked me to sing a Canadian song. But what? I asked myself.

These were 15 young men, mostly in their twenties. They had all recently returned to Tonj East County in Warrap State after having been displaced during the latest phase of the Sudan civil war (1983-2005).

There was no way I was going to sing the Canadian national anthem. Too clichéd. Then I remembered the CBC radio contest to determine the greatest Canadian song.

So I sang the chorus of “Four Strong Winds.” Despite their English training in Kenya and Uganda, my listeners could not understand what the song was about. With all due respect to Ian Tyson, how could they? To outsiders the lyrics are a string of metaphors and romantic, poetic nonsense.

Then I asked them to sing me a song. It took several minutes of consultation in Dinka to decide. What they sang came in gusty unison with much pointing and broad arm gestures. It was like a rah-rah song a group of guys might sing after the game on the way to the pub.

So I interpreted my song—it’s about a man leaving a woman—and they interpreted theirs. It was a Southern Sudanese fight song, which said, in effect, that even if the North killed every last Southerner in Sudan, a pen would survive to write the story.

I told them I liked my song better. It was about loving a woman. Smiles and knowing chuckles broke out all round, and we were off to lunch.

Southern dreams

It’s difficult for those of us watching from afar to appreciate how deeply the hopes and dreams of Southern Sudanese are connected to the referendum on secession slated for January 9, 2011. The most recent phase of fighting with the North followed a decade-long hiatus of a civil war that has been fought since Sudan gained independence in 1956. But the conflict’s roots go much deeper in Sudan’s history.

For most Southern Sudanese, the referendum is the primary and final set piece of three set out in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), after a six-year interim period in which both the North and the South formally committed themselves to “making unity attractive.” Oppressed even in the colonial period by the primarily Arab and Muslim North that continues to advocate for the application of sharia law across the country, the heavily Christian and African South has fought, negotiated, and organized itself for one goal: independence.

Commentators acknowledge that a fair and well organized referendum would result in an overwhelming vote by Southerners for independence. And there is the rub. The previous two major markers leading to January’s referendum were the census in 2008 and elections in 2010. The census and election processes were not good. But they were good enough, setting the stage for the final act: referendum.

Delay tactics or new preparations for war?

With six years’ lead time, you would think there would be plenty of time to get ready, but apparently not. It seems that the National Congress Party government in Khartoum, headed by International Criminal Court-indicted President Omar al-Bashir, has nothing to gain by holding the referendum. Khartoum’s actions in the days leading up to January 9 have been characterized quite nicely as “brinksmanship, delay and broken agreements—old traditions of Sudanese politics” (Verjee 2010, p. 9).

Northern calls to delay the referendum have been met by hints of a resulting unilateral declaration of independence and readiness to return to war from the South. There is a reported military buildup by both sides along the North-South border that cannot be adequately patrolled by the limited number of UN troops already in the country to facilitate the implementation of the CPA. In the meantime, there are constant rumours of war.

Much that should already have been done has not been. The North-South border is not demarcated. The state of Abyei is to have its own, separate referendum on whether it wants to belong to the North or the South. Yet quiet negotiations hosted in Ethiopia have not cleared the way for the Abyei vote to take place at the same time as the wider vote on separation.

Like a conflict-inducing curse, Sudan’s primary foreign exchange earner, oil, is largely located in the South or in the disputed North-South border region. Pipelines and refineries are all to the North. While revenues from oil extraction have been shared by the North with the South during the six-year interim period, there is no guarantee of mutual cooperation if the South goes its separate way.

The international community, led by US President Obama (Copnall 2010) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Quinn 2010), are outlining for Khartoum a range of carrots and sticks designed to prevent political and technical difficulties from turning into a national disaster.

Apocalypse or a dream fulfilled?

Apocalypse: the final revelation. The word is often misused, but properly understood it captures the mood of the people of Southern Sudan, and their family and friends in the diaspora, including those in Canada. Over two million people died in the last phase of the civil war. The young men, for whom I sang “Four Strong Winds” in 2008, were a mere drop in the bucket of four million Sudanese displaced in the same period.

The referendum period has the markers of apocalypse: a conviction by the South that good will finally triumph decisively in the present evil age and vindicate their suffering. Their oppressors in the North will be isolated to their own fate by the establishment of a new country in Southern Sudan.

What we know about apocalypse and dread is that hopes and dreams easily become nightmares and untold destruction. If civil war between North and South does return as a result of the referendum—or its delay—its consequences will certainly be catastrophic. The last six years have given Southern Sudan the time and means to vastly improve its military capabilities (McEvoy & LeBrun 2010). The previously dominant tactics of guerrilla war will be supplemented with more destructive battles using mechanized conventional armaments.

Let’s hope for the sake of all Sudanese that the referendum takes place, that it is good enough, and that the results allow Southern Sudan to move forward while relegating its fight songs to the past.



Copnall, James. 2010. Barack Obama presses for peaceful Sudan referendum. BBC News, September 25.

McEvoy, Claire & Emile LeBrun. 2010. Uncertain Future: Armed Violence in Southern Sudan. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.

Quinn, Andrew. 2010. Clinton calls Sudan referendum ‘ticking time-bomb’. Reuters, September 8.

Verjee, Aly. 2010. Race Against Time: The countdown to the referenda in Southern Sudan and Abyei. London: Rift Valley Institute.

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