One of the world's most bizarre yet uplifting exercises in democracy begins in southern Sudan today when millions of people who have suffered decades of war vote to split from the north and form a new nation. If, as expected, they succeed, Africa's largest country – equivalent in size to Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Spain, Greece and the UK combined – will be divided.
The week-long referendum is a heartening development in a part of the world where sources of optimism are scarce. The civil war between 1983 and 2005 claimed an estimated two million lives, and southern Sudan is so poor and undeveloped that, in an area the size of France, there are a mere 38 miles of paved roads. And the vote which could free it from its neighbour is unlike any other in the history of elections. There are no words on the ballot paper – only symbols for a "yes" or "no" to the split – nor is there any name for the new country, nor agreement on where the borders will fall.
If that last omission suggests a large capacity for violent recriminations and mayhem, especially given the region's history, that is a realistic fear. It was borne out in what, for these parts, is a minor way yesterday, when nine died as rebel groups trying to intimidate voters clashed with southern Sudan forces.
But there remains a high level of euphoria. Southerners in Juba were not just happy, they were ecstatic in recent days as they anticipated the vote. Wearing feathers and grasping ceremonial carved sticks, they danced on dirt streets in Juba, which will be the future capital if the referendum is won. They pounded on drums and sang chants for independence. For southern Sudanese like Atem Yak, who survived war, lived amid dire poverty and endured discrimination, it has been a long time coming. Mr Yak, aged five when Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, is educated and wealthy enough to own a car, a rarity in a region where half the people rely on food aid and only 15 per cent can read. He said: "I never saw the flag of Sudan as something I owed allegiance to. The national anthem never represented my will. So I will not shed tears when Sudan breaks into two."
The great issue is whether this process can be done peacefully. Overleaf is our briefing on the complex business of creating the new nation of southern Sudan.
Sudan is Africa's largest country, the equivalent in size to France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece and the UK combined. It has gold, oil, the precious river Nile waters, and millions of fertile acres, which could in time become the bread basket of the arid Middle East. Most of its oil reserves are in the south, but the means to refine and export them are in the north.
Four-fifths of the 40 million population live in the more developed Arab-speaking, Muslim north, whose capital is Khartoum. The south, whose main city is Juba, has eight million people, mostly black African, Christian or Animist, and is the size of Texas. It is among the world's poorest, least healthy and least educated areas. The UN says a typical 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing school. There is very little infrastructure in the south, which has just 38 miles of asphalted roads. Electricity is provided by costly diesel generators since there is no national grid. Running water is scarce is many areas. Some of the population are herders and nomadic at least part of the year, only 15 per cent of people can read and write, and a mere 2 per cent of southerners complete primary school.
As part of the treaty to end a 20-year civil war that killed at least two million people and destablised much of the region, a referendum on splitting the country into two nations was agreed. Just over 3.93 million people have registered to vote in the week-long poll, with fewer than 120,000 of them living in the north, and 60,000 overseas. Organisers made a concerted effort to ensure women, often uneducated and living in rural areas, were able to sign up to vote; 52 per cent of those registered are women.
The ballot simply shows two images: one of a lone hand that represents independence and the other image depicting two clasped hands representing unity. Many voters will walk for hours to get to polling stations, which close on 15 January. Counting will begin at local polling stations as local and international observers watch, and the final results will be verified by the end of the month. If the south votes to secede, full independence won't take place before 9 July, when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) expires and a new agreement must take its place.
The vote will be closely scrutinised by more than 3,000 international and domestic observers. The actor George Clooney, activist John Prendergast, former US president Jimmy Carter, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan (both as part of the Carter Center's 100-strong observation delegation), ex-South African president Thabo Mbeki and former UN Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry have all arrived. China, which has invested heavily in Sudanese oil development, is also sending observers. The European Union will have 104 observers and experts.
Despite US trade sanctions imposed in 1997, Sudan enjoyed an economic boom after a north-south peace deal in 2005 ended Africa's longest civil war. Annual growth averaged around 8 per cent as oil prices rose and foreign investment flooded in. But in relying on oil, Sudan neglected core industry and agriculture, leaving it vulnerable when the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hit oil prices and cut overseas investment.
During the boom, Sudan imported massively to compensate for a lack of domestic production. This helped to create a structural trade deficit. There are no official figures for unemployment but analysts put it at around 20 per cent. The per capita gross national product of Sudan as a whole was £785 in 2009, and the level in the south is probably lower. The 2011 budget, made on the unlikely assumption of the country remaining unified, projects inflation at 14 per cent; analysts believe the real rate will be higher.
Observers think state finances are under heavy pressure. Some 75 per cent of the budget is spent on the military and security forces.
In addition, Sudan has to fund salaries for a giant central cabinet, with some 90 ministerial posts, a huge central parliament and local governments and parliaments in each of the 15 northern states. Last week, the government announced emergency measures to address its budget deficit, reducing subsidies on petroleum products and raising prices of key goods. A 25 per cent cut in salary for 149 government officials was included.
What southern voters are buying, if they vote for secession, is not exactly a ready-made nation. No more than 20 per cent of a new shared border has been agreed, despite years of debate and expert reports. Potential flashpoints include the central oilfield Heglig, claimed by both sides. Northern and southern armies have already accused each other of building up troops. Nor has the south settled on a name for a new nation. Suggestions include New Sudan, Equatoria, Juwama or the Nile Republic.
Even if the south votes to secede, the two nations will remain locked in mutual economic dependency. The south cannot export its oil resources without using a pipeline that runs through northern territory. And the pipeline is useless for the north unless it is fed with southern oil. Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer, 75 per cent of which comes from the south.
The parties will have to reach some sort of deal if they want to continue benefiting from the crude that provides 45 per cent of government revenues in the north and up to 98 per cent in the south. But non-oil trade in south Sudan's capital, Juba, is dominated by business with the relatively strong economies of neighbouring east Africa, rather than with the north.
Citizenship is another issue. There could be widespread unrest and displacement if ministers cancel the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of southerners living in the north after an independence vote. Their status is still far from clear days before voting.
Sharing assets and liabilities, dividing Nile water resources, agreeing the status of the disputed Abyei region, and co-ordinating economic policies are also issues that have yet to be settled. Negotiations on the economic and political make-up of the country – or countries – after the secession referendum have lost momentum, but Washington, along with African Union envoy Thabo Mbeki, is hoping to revive them.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for President Omar al-Bashir to face charges of masterminding genocidal attacks and war crimes in Sudan's western Darfur region. It will be hard for north Sudan to rebuild bridges with the West while Mr Bashir remains in power.
Washington has promised to help Khartoum with debt relief and to reduce trade sanctions if Sudan delivers a peaceful referendum and settles Darfur. Can US President Barack Obama persuade Congress and Sudan's creditors to help him keep those promises while Sudan has a wanted man as President?
The role of the international community is key. While most donors will focus aid and attention to ensure the poverty-stricken south does not become a failed state, efforts must also be made to prevent the north from sliding back into Islamic extremism and becoming a spoiler in the US-led "war on terror".
However, the West may calculate that it cannot afford to have another failed state in east Africa so close to Somalia, and near Kenya, the region's key economy.