Southerners Sudanese’s Likely Referendum Choice
“Is there anybody who will vote for unity?” That incredulous question, posed by a Southern Sudanese participant in a public opinion study in late 2005, reflects the extent to which Southerners assume that the outcome of the 2011 referendum is a forgone conclusion. In four separate National Democratic Institute (NDI) studies comprising close to 200 focus groups with approximately 1900 participants, Southern Sudanese have consistently expressed an overwhelming preference for political separation from the North. The sentiment for secession is shared across ethnic groups and has not wavered over time (studies cover 2004-early 2009). The two decade civil war is etched into the minds of many Southern Sudanese as a “liberation struggle” that was fought to achieve equality and freedom. Even with the protections offered by the CPA, few believe that goal can be achieved through a united Sudan because there is so little faith that “Arabs” would abide by them. As one participant said, “If we try unity, the same thing they [Arabs] did to our mothers and grandmothers will happen again.”
Apart from this distrust, Southerners offer four main reasons for their support of secession. In early NDI studies, participants focus on deeply felt grievances about past treatment (“we have suffered a lot under the Arabs”) and their strong desire self-rule. In later studies these are still important motivations, but in addition participants point to CPA violations as proof that they would remain vulnerable in a united Sudan and voice a belief that independence will bring economic and social benefits. The advent of the Government of Southern Sudan appears to have raised Southerners’ confidence in their ability to govern, and they believe that gaining complete control over the South’s resources (rather than these being administered from, and shared with, “Khartoum”) significantly increases the likelihood of development in the South.
Nothing appears to shake Southerners from the conviction that their future can only be guaranteed in an independent South. Although the late John Garang was a much-respected leader, participants in the 2004 NDI study indicated they would not support any efforts he made to create a united Sudan. “If John Garang goes for unity, we will change leaders” was a typical comment. A later study included a series of scenarios designed to measure the strength of secession support. Neither the promise of more development with unity, direction from the SPLM leadership to choose unity, nor the possibility of secession provoking renewed conflict proved successful in converting participants to the unity position. The quotations below illustrate the strength of the commitment to secession.
“If we don’t separate, fighting will continue to the last man. We are Africans, not Arabs.” (Dinka Man, Rumbek, 2004)
“If they [SPLM leadership] want us to be with the North, we better tell them to step down from leadership and anyone from the South who wants separation can lead us.” (Nuer Nyong Man, Ganyiel, 2005)
“[The North] will go with their development. We shall vote for separation. Even if a Northerner is the one who gave me these clothes which I am wearing now, I shall remove them and walk naked, and I will be okay.” (Shilluk Man, Nyilwak, 2005)
“They claim that we have received CPA. I am not seeing what they call the CPA. I am going to vote for separation.” (Woman from Smaller Tribe, Juba, 2007)
“I am tired of begging Arabs for assistance, for food, yet those resources are mine. They stole them from us. We would rather separate and develop those resources on our own.” (Nuer Jikany Woman, Melut, 2008)
Some of the participants who support secession paint an almost halcyon picture of a post-independence Southern Sudan. They speak of unity among Southerners, a corruption-free government and widespread development. Describing his view of the region after 2011, one young man in the latest study said, “When we are separated, I believe we shall have 100% of the benefits of our oil revenue. There will be good roads, schools, hospitals, clean water and peace in South Sudan.”
A few Southern Sudanese are willing to consider unity as an option in 2011, but there is no single rationale given among this group. Unity could become attractive, a few say, if Salva Kiir were elected president of Sudan prior to the 2011 referendum. A few who live along the North-South border treasure their ability to live and travel north and think that unity may offer economic benefits. Among smaller Southern tribes, a few who feel left out of the government in the South believe unity is the better path. There are a few women whose fear of conflict is greater than their desire for separation. If corruption in the South is not addressed, a few note, unity will be their choice. But these are the exception. Without a dramatic change in course, it appears likely that Southern Sudanese will vote for secession in 2011. As one participant said, “We will be divided. Even children know that.”
[Notes: (1) NDI’s Sudan studies are qualitative and cannot offer statistical measurements of opinions, though the scope of the Institute’s efforts and the consistency of findings over time allows the Institute to present broadly-held attitudes and opinions; (2) All phrases appearing in quotation marks are taken from transcripts of various NDI focus groups with Southern Sudanese from 2004-early 2009; and (3) “Arabs” is a term used by Southerners to describe both the general northern population and the non-SPLM parts of the central government. All of NDI’s Sudan studies can be found at www.ndi.org.]
Traci Cook is a senior advisor on the Southern and East African Team at the National Democratic Institute and a public opinion researcher with experience in Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S.