The Ninety-Nine Percent Referendum: Southern Sudan Votes to Secede



by Heather J. Sharkey

Civil wars ravaged Sudan in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  Most fighting occurred between government armies and southern “rebel” forces during two stretches of conflict, often called the “first civil war”, waged between 1955 and 1971, and the “second civil war”, waged after 1983.   Southern Sudanese civilians bore the brunt of the suffering.  By 1998, the U.S. Committee for Refugees was estimating that, after 1983, some two million southerners had died from war-related causes and more than eighty percent of the southern population had been displaced at some time.  Greater Khartoum alone hosted some 1.8 million refugees from the war zones.[1]  This second civil war appeared to end in 2005, when the Government of Sudan (representing the regime in Khartoum) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, representing southern interests) met in Naivasha, Kenya to sign a “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” (CPA).  After so many years of strife, southern Sudanese people – both in Sudan and the diaspora – drew hope from the CPA’s claim that, following a transitional period of government partnership, southerners would have the chance to vote in a referendum on national unity in 2011. 

At the start, there were reasons to doubt whether the 2005 Agreement would either occur or live up to its promises.  After all, it entailed a “Protocol on Power Sharing” and an “Agreement of Wealth Sharing” (with the latter mostly applying to oil revenues), but Southerners had heard similar promises before.  Notably, in 1972, the country’s then-dictator, Ja’far Numayri (r. 1969-85), signed the Addis Ababa Accord ending the first civil war, and made vows about sharing that the central government ultimately failed to fulfill.  Another reason for skepticism in 2005 was that the CPA appeared to end the North-South civil war even as a new civil war was raging in the western (but still “northern”) Sudanese region of Darfur.  At the time, some analysts suggested that the westward shift of conflict towards Darfur was no accident, insofar as the Khartoum regime was using war as a machine for survival.  War, after all, kept the government’s armies busy and provided a means for co-opting potentially restless groups (like the Arab marauders, known as the Janjaweed, who came to double as the regime’s counter-insurgency forces).  Then, too, there was the problem of President Omar Beshir himself.  Beshir had seized power in a military coup in 1989, in an alliance with Islamist ideologues.  His regime was highly repressive.  Yet he held a worldview that has been common among Muslim Arabophone nationalists in postcolonial Sudan, insofar as he believed that the one, big Sudan had a supreme Arabic-Islamic culture, and that Arabic language and Islamic religion could bind the country’s diverse peoples together.  Of course, what Beshir and his shrinking body of supporters in Khartoum regarded as an Arabo-Islamic “civilizing mission” for Sudan looked like plain colonialism to much of the rest of the country. 

Considering these doubts, observers were wondering over the past six years whether the southern referendum would actually happen, according to the CPA’s stipulation, or more accurately, whether the Beshir regime would allow it to happen.  Few doubted that southerners, given the chance, would reject national unity.  In this regard, the 2005-2011 transitional period looked like a stall tactic. 

Yet, remarkably, the referendum proceeded, and southerners ran, elated, to the polls.  From January 9th through January 15th, 2011, some ninety-eight percent of eligible voters, living in Sudan and in eight countries abroad, turned out to vote.  At a ceremony in Juba, the southern capital, on January 30, 2011, officials announced preliminary results: nearly 99% of voters had opted for secession, including 99.57% of those who had voted within southern Sudan itself.[2] If all goes according to plan, southern Sudan – with a name yet to be chosen – will become independent on July 9th, 2011. 

Again, the results of the poll are unsurprising in themselves.  For southerners, the past half-century of Sudanese unity has been so grim that few will grieve over a break-up.  Nevertheless, when historians look back on the events that transpired, they will undoubtedly confront a lingering question, namely:  Did this vote have to happen?  Was divorce avoidable?  The familial term of “divorce” seems appropriate here, because Sudanese peoples have formed certain bonds in spite of the violence, for example, by coming to share the capital, Khartoum, as a domicile. 

As the referendum was proceeding, BBC News Africa Online suggested that a vote to split the country was obvious and inevitable.  Using annotated maps to explain the referendum, its website noted that, “The great divide across Sudan is visible even from space, as this NASA satellite image shows.  The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor.  Southern Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.”[3]  

But was Sudan indeed doomed to split by geography, or alternatively doomed, as the BBC also suggested, by colonial borders that paid little heed “to cultural realities on the ground”?[4] The answer is no: the approaching split was not preordained despite the country’s inherent diversity.   To succeed, a nation-state need not be homogeneous, though it must cultivate a spirit of mutual belonging.  In Sudan, political choices over many years – not just geography or even culture – conspired to undermine the possibility of national unity.  British rulers in the colonial period (1898-1956), followed by northern Sudanese rulers thereafter, treated southern Sudan with disdain and starved the region of opportunities.  In the postcolonial period, successive regimes went farther by trying to plunder the southern region’s natural resources.  These battles over natural resources featured strongly in the second civil war, and involved first, Nile waters (and a project known as the Jonglei Canal), and second, oil, which Sudan first exported in 1999.[5]  

Relative to northern Sudan, southern Sudan today is acutely underdeveloped.  Once again, BBC News Africa online developed a series of maps to explain this phenomenon – maps plotting such things as educational distribution (the percentage of children who have attended primary school) and food insecurity (the percentage of households with “poor” access to food).  “These maps,” the website explains, “show the extent to which Sudan is already two nations – a richer, Arabic-speaking Muslim north and a poorer south devastated by years of conflict and neglect.”[6]  Secession, it implies, would only confirm this de facto division. 

John Garang (1945-2005), who defected from the Sudanese national army to lead the southern resistance when civil war resumed in 1983, died in a helicopter crash in July 2005, just months after signing the peace agreement at Naivasha.  His vision for Sudan will undoubtedly inform any southern Sudanese republic that emerges from secession.  Along with other southern Sudanese intellectuals, Garang called for a Sudan that would be pluralistic, not monocultural – a Sudan that would recognize linguistic and religious diversity in contrast to the Arabo-Islamism proclaimed by successive postcolonial Khartoum regimes.  Certainly the new southern Sudanese state will be more inclined to look towards the African interior than towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

What now?  Should we be celebrating southern secession as a delayed chapter in African decolonization, as some have suggested?  It would be wise to let caution temper jubilation.  Consider, for example, that the southern Sudanese referendum coincided with the fifty-year anniversary of the murder of Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), who was apparently killed with the support of CIA agents, in the newborn Republic of Congo. This “jubilee” year of Lumumba’s killing offers a reminder and warning of how outside interference, in tandem with internal divisions, thwarted the process of state-formation for many of Africa’s newly decolonized states in the mid-twentieth century.  Such factors may yet destabilize southern Sudan.  In short, could southern Sudan go the way of the Congo?  It is not a happy thought. 

Indeed, for southern Sudan, major challenges are looming.  Most of Sudan’s oil comes from the southern region, but the pipeline goes through the North and up to the coast at Port Sudan.  Khartoum elites have enjoyed the oil wealth of the past decade and will be loath to lose it.  Complicating the scenario is China, which has a large stake in Sudanese oil.  China has proven itself willing in the recent past to overlook (or abet) human rights abuses in the southern oil zones.[7]  Access to water – that is, hydropolitics – remains an issue as well, and Egypt will be sure to intervene to protect its own interests.  Meanwhile, there is still Omar Beshir, deeply unpopular throughout Sudan, who has vowed to respond to a southern secession by making the North more “truly” Islamic.  Reports suggest that southern people who came to northern cities as refugees during the 1980s and 1990s are now feeling rather uneasy.[8]  Many of these people are Christians, and certain Khartoum churches are said to be emptying or closing as some of them leave and head southward.  The motives for their migration are unclear.  Are former refugees going “home” (wherever that may now be)?  Or are they fleeing as religious minorities who worry about life in a northern Sudanese state that may become ever more Islamized?[9]  Finally, there is the serious question of southern Sudan’s own ethnic and political factions, and the record of internecine fighting that marred the second civil war.  Consider the Bor Massacre of 1991, when soldiers of an SPLA offshoot faction, loyal to the ethnic Nuer leader, Riek Machar (b. 1952), massacred an estimated 2,000 ethnic Dinka civilians.[10]   Can southerners hold fast to their goals and ideals in the face of all these pressures? 

Southern Sudanese people are now living in a moment of great hope and excitement.  They have much to celebrate, including their own perseverance and survival.  But the road ahead will be bumpy. 


[1] U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 1998 (Washington, D.C: Immigration & Refugee Services of America, 1998), pp. 95-96.
[2] Xan Rice, “Nearly All Southern Sudanese Voted for Secession,” The Guardian, January 30, 2011,  (Accessed February 7, 2011).
[3] “Sudan: One Country or Two?”, BBC News Africa, (Accessed January 15, 2011).
[4] “Q & A: Southern Sudan Referendum,” BBC News Africa,  (Accessed January 15, 2011).
[5] On the former, see Robert O. Collins, The Waters of the Nile: Hydropolitics and the Jonglei Canal (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996).
[6] “Sudan: One Country or Two,” BBC News Africa, (Accessed January 15, 2011).
[7] Human Rights Watch, Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights, November 24, 2003,  (Accessed February 6, 2011).
[8] “Fears Grow for Minorities in North Sudan If South Votes to Secede,” The Guardian, January 8, 2011, (Accessed February 6, 2011).
[9] Fredrick Nzwili, “Churches Closing in North Sudan after Referendum,” Ecumenical News International, February 3, 2011,  (Accessed February 6, 2011).
[10] Jemera Rone, John Prendergast, & Karen Sorenson, Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), p. 99.

About the Author: 


Heather J. Sharkey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She teaches classes on the Islamic world, the modern Middle East, and colonial and postcolonial North Africa, and on the history of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish relations.  Before joining the Penn faculty in 2002, she taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Trinity College in Connecticut.  She holds degrees from Yale (Anthropology, BA, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa), the University of Durham, England (Middle Eastern Studies, MPhil), and Princeton (History, PhD).  She has received many fellowships, including the Marshall, Fulbright-Hays, and Carnegie. 

Sharkey’s first book, entitled, Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, appeared from the University of California Press in 2003.  Her second book, entitled American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire, appeared from Princeton University Press in 2008.  She is co-editor of American Missionaries in the Middle East: Foundational Encounters (forthcoming in 2011 from the University of Utah Press).  Presently she is writing a book for Cambridge University Press on the history of inter-communal relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the modern Middle East and North Africa.  Her articles have appeared in many edited volumes (among them Globalization and the Muslim World [2004], Literature and Nation in the Middle East [2006], Muslim-Christian Encounters in Africa [2006], and Proselytization Revisited: Rights, Free Markets, and Culture Wars [2008]) and in periodicals such as the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of African History, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.  She is on the editorial advisory boards of four journals: International Journal of African Historical Studies, Church History and Religious Culture, Islamic Africa, and Northeast African Studies.