JUBA, Sudan—Spontaneous outbursts of singing, dancing, clapping, and cheering lasted through the night at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre in Southern Sudan's capital, Juba, on Sunday. The celebration came at the conclusion of a conference initiated by Salva Kiir, the president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan, aimed at unifying the fractious southern political and military elite before an upcoming vote on self-determination.
The January 2011 referendum is the final step in the 2005 peace agreement that brought an end to more than two decades of war between the mainly Christian and animist south of the country and the mainly Muslim north. The referendum will allow southerners to choose between unity with northern Sudan or independent nationhood.
If, as seems likely, southerners opt for independence, many here believe that the viability of the new nation depends on the current southern ruling party, the Southern People's Liberation Movement, convincing southern politicians and army commanders who have defected from the movement—either to fight for the north or to form their own southern opposition groups—that they have a future in the south. If that isn't possible, the "divide-and-conquer" pattern established during the civil war, of the Sudanese government in Khartoum—currently led by President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party—arming southern factions to fight each other, may continue. The resulting destabilization could spiral beyond the fledgling southern government's control.
Sunday's scenes of jubilation seemed unimaginable just two days earlier. The conference, scheduled to last three days, was extended to five when the participants, who represented 23 political parties as well as civil society and faith groups, couldn't agree on regulations to govern their conduct in the buildup to the referendum and, crucially, on the process of developing a constitution and government if Southern Sudan becomes a new nation.
Accusations of collusion with the north and disloyalty to the southern people bounced back and forth among the political leaders, while attendees representing ordinary Sudanese citizens grew increasingly frustrated. On Thursday evening, 75-year-old Rev. Samuel Ador took to the stage, walking stick in hand, and began jumping up and down as he launched a tirade against the political elites. "Some of you here ruling us are foreigners!" he shouted. "Your children are not here; they are getting education overseas. If war breaks out, you will lose nothing! Nothing! You will join your children and leave us here!"
But by 9 on Sunday night, the politicians were ready to issue a joint communiqué confirming the reconciliation of former opponents and agreeing to form a broad-based transitional government if the referendum results in independence for the south. The communiqué states that the transitional government will be responsible for conducting a population census and holding national elections to decide who will run the new country. "If anybody has any doubt we have reconciled, that doubt must remain in this hall" said Lam Akol, a leading southern politician who made a high-profile break from the SPLM in June last year to form his own party, the SPLM-DC.
In the days since the conference, people have expressed cautious optimism that the reconciliation can last. Edmund Yakini, from the pro-democracy group SUNDE, applauded the spirit that was on display by the end of the conference, but he worries whether it can be sustained. "This is where both civil society here and the international community will need to come in, to hold them to their words," he said. Civil society organizer Lony Ruot warned that there will be serious problems if the commitment to a unified south breaks down, "because any opponents can be used by the NCP to destabilize the south."
Kiir's strategy for reining in southern opponents of the SPLM recently shifted from iron fist to open hand when, two weeks ago, he issued a presidential pardon to senior southern army officers who had defected to the north or launched rebellions against the southern army. Those covered by the pardon have previously shown themselves capable of disrupting the peace brought by the 2005 agreement. When Maj. Gen. Gabriel Tanginye, a southerner who had joined the northern forces, came to the south in 2006, the resulting clashes led to the deaths of 150 people. Local rebellions by other senior southern army officers in the aftermath of Sudan's April 2010 nationwide elections also proved that a fractured south would be a major security risk. Kiir's move seemed to have paid off last weekend when southern Gen. George Athor, who led one of the post-election rebellions, sent three representatives to the conference.
When I spoke with the Sudanese press pool the day after the conference, Simon Boboya, a local journalist, explained that southern unity is the key to the viability of an independent Southern Sudan. "The move of reconciliation is good, but how is the president going to maintain the renegades after the referendum? That is the biggest challenge for the administration of Salva Kiir."
Kiir himself exuded a quiet confidence when I met with him this week. He was clearly delighted by the events of Sunday night. But when I asked whether he was sure he could maintain this newfound unity after the referendum, he was circumspect. "I believe we will sustain the reconciliation of the south if the decisions of the conference are implemented," he told me.