I received a phone call a couple of Wednesdays ago to ask whether as Chairman of the Conservative Party’s International Office I would fly to Southern Sudan to witness the closing stages of the Referendum in the South, the outcome of which could result in it breaking away from the North.
Quick decisions had to be made. I was to fly out on the Friday and it would involve a 10-hour flight to Juba with a three-hour wait at Addis Ababa. I would visit Polling Stations, and meet high-level Ministers and officials in the South. The next day would be a flight to Khartoum, capital of the North, to meet the Vice-President Ali Osman Taha, Dr Nafie Ali Nafie, Advisor to the President of Sudan, and other Ministers, then back to Heathrow by Monday midday, including another 3 hour wait at Cairo – so much for MPs' jollies!
The trip was sponsored by the affable Lord Ahmed who speaks some Arabic and appears to know everyone; also in attendance was Liz St. Clair, Executive Director of Women in Public Policy, and Stephen Williams from the Anglo-Sudan Lawyers Association. The expedition was organised by Muslim Hands, a charity who work in 49 countries and last year had a turnover of £11m.
Our flight from Addis was over flat desert, with the scar of a long, straight oil pipeline visible at one point, as well as the mighty Nile. Juba is the capital city of the South which houses about half a million people. It is undeveloped with few buildings of any substance and no proper water supply. Approximately 9 million people live in the South and 34 million live in the North.
On our arrival we were whisked to our hotel. We had barely time to think and then we were off to the Polling Stations. This was a real eye opener. The Polling Stations were located mostly in schools. Each voter had been previously properly registered by name and finger print which was meticulously checked when they arrived with their polling card. Their fingers were then marked with indelible ink to prevent multiple voting.
The officials on hand were not paid but regarded it as a duty to their country to participate. One complained of hunger and thirst! Each polling station had a team of officials but mostly local observers all of whom declared that they were thoroughly satisfied with the process.
The locals, including one with a baby on her back, appeared to be overjoyed at the opportunity to vote on the future of their nation. The turnout was a staggering 95% plus and everyone seems to think there is no doubt about the result, which will be officially declared at the start of February.
However, this is only the beginning of the process. Expectations of the people are undoubtedly high but the South has virtually no infrastructure and is very much a blank canvas.
The Referendum came about as a result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) decided in 2005, which was spearheaded by the trio of Britain, Norway and the USA and ended the war between the North and the South over oil revenues.
Most of the wells are located in the South and there are two pipelines built by the Chinese to take oil to refineries in the North and onto Port Sudan on the Red Sea for international marketing, however, known oil revenues are estimated to last only ten years.
Over the last five years we were informed, and not contradicted, by many sources that the North has painstakingly transferred 50% of the net oil revenue to the South. Apparently $12bn dollars has either been spent on some of the highest paid soldiers in the world or mysteriously disappeared.
It is clear that large intractable problems under the CPA continue, for example what happens to Southern Citizens who continue to live in the North, and vice versa, how oil revenues are to be split in the future and what happens to the oil rich state of Abyei. It was not included in the Referendum but is considered a historical bridge between northern and Southern Sudan and was awarded “special administrative status” in the CPA.
All of this has to be resolved by July when the new Government in the South must be up and running. Something that is easier said than done given the very few experienced people available to run the new Government.
The Northern leaders are constructively engaged in the process, although they are somewhat bruised by the prospect of losing a large chunk of their territory and, perhaps more importantly, revenue. However, they recognise their peaceful future is inextricably linked to success in the South and no one wants a return to war.
Meanwhile, problems in North Darfur and the Lords Resistance Army wreak havoc in the south west where Sudan borders the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.
Formidable problems have to be overcome. The international community will need to continue to be involved to heavily provide advice and finance. However, with goodwill in the North and South it is just possible that a new democratic nation could be born.
The people who voted in such large numbers are desperate to control their future so that the baby who went to the Polling Station has an easier life than her mother has had so far.