The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has just reported success in gaining access to an area of northern Sudan which has been cut off from international aid since the start of the year. The Jebel Marra region of Darfur has been a battleground this year between government forces and rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army. The fighting has prevented aid agencies from reaching Jebel Marra, which has an estimated population of 170,000. The UN believes as many as 100,000 may have been displaced over the course of the year. UNICEF will now begin the task of assessing the humanitarian needs there and restarting the national immunization programme.
Sudan is currently the largest country on the continent of Africa. But in less than three months that could change, after the south holds a referendum on independence. After decades of civil war between the Muslim North and Christian South, a peace agreement signed in 2005 paved the way for a vote on secession by the South at the start of 2011. South Sudan is home to around 2 million people, but Sudanese exiles returning in anticipation of the vote could see another 1.5 million people added to the population ahead of the referendum.
Politicians in the North are anxious there are still agreements to reach on border and security issues before any referendum goes ahead. But many southern Sudanese would find any delay unacceptable. Political parties and former militant groups in the South have agreed at a recent conference that even if preparations do not allow for a perfect referendum election in January, a fresh census, a second round of elections and a new constitution could take place three months afterwards or in another set period of time.
If the southern Sudanese vote for secession from the North, South Sudan will become Africa’s first new country in nearly twenty years. Ravaged by twenty-one years of civil war, much is needed to reconstruct the country. Rebuilding infrastructure will be one important task to aid the country’s redevelopment. Though it is roughly the size of Spain and Portugal combined, South Sudan only has around 60 kilometres of tarmac roads.
Some observers fear the referendum may not usher in the period of peace and stability hoped for by the southern Sudanese. They worry that violence could erupt from elements in the North opposed to a break-up of Sudan. The border region of Abyei could also be a flashpoint. This oil-producing region will hold a simultaneous vote whether to join the North or the South. In case violence should erupt in January, the United Nations and aid agencies are at work preparing contingency plans. Despite all the fears and gloomy warnings, there is a real atmosphere of optimism and expectation in the South and on the streets of Juba. The Southern President, Salva Kiir, has been upbeat about the future, likening the splitting of the country to a mother giving birth to twins. Mr Kiir believes that “once the labour pains are over, the two children can grow up as friends”.