Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir made his final trip to the southern capital, Juba, on Tuesday before a January 9 vote on secession, offering a hand of peace to the southerners he fought for so long.
Al-Bashir seemed to accept that Sudan would split in two after the referendum and his visit was seen as allaying fears that the northern government would refuse to let go of the south — which has 70% of Sudan’s oil output.
Belgian photo-journalist Cedric Gerbehaye of the prestigious VU Photo Agency traveled to Southern Sudan ahead of the watershed January 9 referendum. There he visited Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinics and documented the humanitarian situation, which remains dire, even as hope for positive change surges through the war-torn country.
There have been fears that the referendum could lead to a return to war, but al-Bashir said he would join in the south’s independence celebrations.
The south’s independence referendum was guaranteed in a 2005 peace deal ending Sudan’s north-south civil war, which killed at least two million people and destabilised much of the region, fuelled by oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology.
Nearly four million southerners have registered to take part in the vote after a civil war fought since 1955 against Khartoum, which they saw as having oppressed them. A vote for separation is seen as a foregone conclusion.
“The preferred choice for us is unity but in the end we will respect the choice of the southern citizens,” al-Bashir said in a speech to southern officials. “One would be sad that Sudan has split but also pleased because we witnessed peace.”
Al-Bashir appeared visibly resigned in contrast to his usual upbeat rhetoric, in a visit seen as a farewell to the south and to the title of Africa’s largest country by area.
Accepting that the result is likely to be secession, al-Bashir said he would come and join in the celebrations after the vote.
“Even after the southern state is born we are ready in the Khartoum government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice — we are ready to help.”
Key issues remain unresolved as the vote approaches and fierce rounds of negotiations are expected to follow on post-referendum arrangements, with oil sharing, a disputed border and citizenship at the top of the agenda.
But many fear conflict may still ignite around the fate of the disputed Abyei region, claimed by both sides and with its own referendum on whether to join the south or north unlikely to happen at all.
‘Respect our decision’
Anti-northern sentiment runs deep in the south, and the capital, Juba, was in a state of lockdown during the president’s visit. Soldiers lined the streets and troops with guns mounted on the back of trucks manned the tiny city’s intersections.
The president was greeted by hundreds of southerners who gathered near the airport to campaign for their independence. As he drove away they chanted “no to unity” and waved signs that read “respect our decision”.
One woman, a Juba resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said, “next time he comes we can arrest him”.
Al-Bashir is the only sitting head of state to be wanted by the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of masterminding war crimes and genocide in a separate conflict in Darfur.
In Juba, the president repeated his pro-unity stance, but southern leaders praised him and were clearly grateful that he had sought to reduce tensions around the vote.
“He can campaign for whatever he wants — at the end of the day the decision will be with the people of south Sudan,” said southern Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin. — Reuters