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The road to referendum in South Sudan and why it needs help to boost its economy

By | Sep 12th 2010 | 4 min read

By Anyang’ Nyong’o

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) government has, over the last two years, focused on delivering peace dividends to the Southern Sudanese people. After more than 50 years of fighting for self-determination, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed between Juba and Khartoum in 2005, finally set the framework for settling this long-standing dispute in which the freedom of the South from political oppression by the North was the key contentious issue.

The CPA provided for a five-year period during which the South would enjoy some limited internal self- government. At the end of this period, a referendum was to be held in the South for the people to decide whether they should secede from the North or continue in a federal or con-federal form of government with the North. The mood in Juba at the moment portrays a people who feel the fruits of self-rule are very sweet; they could be even sweeter were complete self-determination to be the outcome of the referendum.

The reasons are rather simple to see with the naked eye. During the last 25 years in which the SPLM/SPLA waged the struggle for self-determination, the Sudanese national army more or less razed everything to the ground in South Sudan. Schools, hospitals, roads, commercial enterprises and even simple agriculture became almost non-existent.

Over the last five years since the SPLM came to power in Juba, roads have been built, hospitals and other health facilities are coming up, Juba is alive with commercial activities, the financial sector is booming with Kenya’s KCB and Equity banks spreading like wild fire. There is a general air of hope in the future with the SPLM in power.

The SPLM government, run by people who for a long time fought a guerrilla war in the bush, is obviously not well endowed with human resources and management skills. Before 2005, however, Khartoum was awash with qualified manpower and yet the national Government still sank the South into a hole of war, misery and total chaos. The Southern people are therefore ready to give the SPLM government time to grow and build capacity as it sets up proper governance systems and structures at a time of peace.

Peace, of course, is of essence. Hence what is even more important is for the people to keep on experiencing peace and its dividends in terms of social and economic progress. One indicator of such progress is the infrastructure coming up in Juba and the rest of the country. Two years ago, there was only one paved road in Juba full of potholes. Now close to three quarters of the major roads in Juba are paved, and one can drive safely from Juba to Khartoum much easier and faster than one can drive from Kisumu to Kakamega.

Almost all Government houses have been rehabilitated and refurbished and some new ones built. This speaks volumes of the SPLM government’s determination to establish facilities for a modern government that works.

The Kenya Government has come in handy to extend a helping hand in human resources development in public administration, the administration of justice and the management of the implementation of the CPA within the Igad framework. Indeed, it is in the interest of Kenya that the CPA succeeds and the referendum is held in time.

Few people question the need to hold the referendum as envisaged in the CPA. Some, however, have come up to propose the referendum be postponed because the Juba government is not prepared for the process. I am referring to the referendum as a "process" and not an "event" because the casting of the vote in January next year is just part of the process, not the referendum itself.

Kenyans now have a good experience on how to hold a successful referendum having held two within a five year period: the first one in 2005 which returned a negative result from what the Government expected, and one this year which was a popular endorsement of the Government supported new Constitution. The SPLM has much to borrow and learn from Kenya, and it would be important for Juba to work closely with Nairobi in this regard.

First comes the issue of election laws and how they can be understood by the people and implemented by State organs, which are well versed in what they are doing. Before the reforms that created the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, Kenya’s election laws were amenable to being used to subvert the democratic process by cliques in Government, which fear the outcome of free and fair elections. This is a possibility that Juba needs to avoid if the referendum is to be fair, legitimate and a true reflection of the wishes of the people.

Second is the environment in which a referendum is held in terms of people enjoying the political space to make informed choices. This has a lot to do with the quality of governance and the absence of any form of intimidation or coercion in choice making.

Third is the infrastructure and technology for running an election in general and a referendum in particular. The Government needs to be apt in both counts. The people too must be apt in both counts. The information technology, the monitoring technology and the campaign machineries for Government, political parties and civil society organisations should leave little doubt in terms of accessibility and easy use. In that regard, friends of South Sudan should move in with speed to give helping hands given the economic State of affairs in the South at the moment.

Africa hopes for a successful referendum in South Sudan early next year.

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