Witnessing the Birth of a Nation in Southern Sudan

This week, after decades of war and genocide, Southern Sudanese line up in droves to vote on a referendum divorcing them from the rest of the Sudan. This is history in the making.

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They have returned to this part of Africa from all over the continent and abroad, traveling via every type of transport or simply on foot. After decades in exile in foreign lands or displaced internally from their own homelands, Southern Sudanese have begun to claim their own future. Their stories are familiar -- tales of lives destroyed, family members lost, pain too deep to speak. But a sense of optimism mixed with anxiety pervades the air. With this momentous election currently unfolding, they have begun the difficult process of separating their Texas-size portion of this troubled country, the largest on the continent. A new and uncertain future awaits.

The roots of this divorce, 60 years in the making, began as many things do in Africa -- with European colonialism. Poisoned by a painful history of slavery, Sudan never should have been a unified country. Culturally and linguistically more attuned to the populations living toward the South and East, Southern Sudan was cynically mashed together with the rest of the Sudan by the fleeing British Empire.

Troubles started almost immediately with a 20-year war that began in 1955. An 11-year peace was followed by a second, more brutal, war that began in 1983, causing the deaths of more than 2 million people. In 2002 a ceasefire was declared, followed by a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. That deal stipulated a six-year period in which both sides were to work toward unity before a referendum on the future of a united Sudan would be held.

But unity was never in the cards. The death of the charismatic Southern leader John Garang in 2005, shortly after he achieved his greatest victory, ended that possibility. The political party/insurgent force he founded, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, quickly rejected remaining within a united Sudan after its founder's demise. Instead, Southern leaders assiduously worked to prepare the population to go it alone.

If, as expected, the population votes for separation, a formal declaration of independence will be celebrated in July, bringing into being Africa's 55th nation. If the referendum passes, Southern Sudan will become the first new country on the continent since Eritrea was born in 1993.

The new nation will face many challenges. Despite simplistic categorizations of the war as being between Africans and Arabs, Southern Sudanese are not a unified group. This is a proudly multiethnic, multireligious and multiracial land. Any sense of a common national identity that does exist was forged in the struggle against the North, something of which the new leaders are acutely aware.

I spoke with Jok Madut Jok, a Sudanese-American academic who has returned to Southern Sudan to help build his new nation. He described to me the difficult task ahead of building a national identity out of Southern Sudan's disparate groups, one not based solely on the painful memory of the war.

Relations with the North remain difficult. Large populations of Southerners live in the North, and vice versa. What to do about these communities remains a source of tension.

And then there is the oil, the key source of revenue for both governments. Two-thirds of Sudan's oil is pumped from fields located in the South, through pipelines that run in the North. Revenues currently split fifty-fifty between the two will have to be renegotiated peacefully. The government in the South will also need to find ways to diversify the economy so as not to fall victim to the petro-politics that have destroyed so many other African societies.

There is reason for optimism, too. This is a fertile land, capable of producing the food necessary to feed its rapidly expanding population. And Southern Sudan will quickly be incorporated into the vibrant regional East African economy, evident from the extensive presence of Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians, Somalis and others who have come to make their fortunes amid a local economic boom. The political leadership, though not faultless, possesses a keen awareness of the challenges ahead. But most important, the Southern Sudanese share a unity of purpose, a belief that at this moment, this new nation is their destiny.