Beneath a mango tree not yet ripe after the long rainy season on the University of Bahr el Ghazal campus in the city of Wau, I sit sipping sweetened chai with a group of Southern Sudan's aspiring leaders. I'm on the campus to speak with the students about the upcoming referendum, and to listen to their concerns and expectations for the future of South Sudan. These students represent the thinkers and future leaders who are the lifeblood of a dynamic society. Perhaps naively expecting to hear a vigorous, academic debate on the merits of both secession and unity for the South, I was a bit disoriented to listen to a number of third year students -- those on the cusp of entering a modern workforce, one of the first generations to complete their undergraduate studies in the South in the wake of Sudan's civil war -- say that they wouldn't accept any outcome to the coming referendum other than an independent Southern Sudan. Amongst this group of ten students from throughout South Sudan, all articulate, intelligent and passionate, there was a consensus that each of them (and those who subsequently gathered around us to listen) would leave their studies, pick up a gun, and carry the banner for an independent south without hesitation if or when called upon. "Through ballot or bullet," according to one man, "the South and its people are going to be independent."
While it would be easy to write off the group's comments as an expression of youthful fervor, there was something deeper and potentially troubling to what they were saying. In their eyes the referendum was little more than an exercise to honor the South's commitments to the CPA, assuage the concerns of the international community, and give the Southern government the international political cover it needs to separate from the North. But, should that process be challenged by Khartoum or the international community, the students were confident that the South would unilaterally declare its independence and deal with the repercussion. For them, and others I spoke with over the last three weeks in various parts of the South, the referendum is not simply the final outcome of 6 years of peace (as it is often described in relation to the CPA), but is rather the culmination of more than 50 years of struggling for independence.
There is the potential that the strident rhetoric of the South's leadership coupled with the continued actions and rhetoric of the North have set an unalterable course for secession and piqued the passions of the populace to such a degree, that any effort to compromise or postpone the referendum would be unacceptable to the vast majority of the population. Admittedly I only spoke with individuals and groups in 4 regions of the South. But, still, I was left to wonder whether the Southern government, for good or bad, had painted itself into a corner of sorts. Where any concession on the terms of the referendum, particularly the January 9th date, and to a lesser extent the lingering issues related to border demarcation, citizenship, oil revenue sharing, etc., will be viewed as a sign of weakness and a letdown in the eyes of the population. When broad sections of the populace, particularly those most likely to actively participate in a return to violence (be it reactive or proactive) have such rigid expectations, who will speak for peaceful alternatives?
The takeaway message from the conversation with these young leaders was that the outcome of the referendum mattered only nominally in their minds. Regardless of whether the referendum meets the standards laid forth in the protocols of the CPA and the referendum legislation, or the international standards of a free and fair referendum, according to them, the South was unified in its desire for separation. More than one student noted that the South is already a separate government and separate country, the referendum is merely the symbolic act to make it official. These young minds had committed themselves to going back to their home communities when their examinations ended to help mobilize for the referendum; and, if need be, help mobilize their families and communities for the possibility of returning to war.
The conversation on the campus made me wonder how much the referendum really means in the end. For many, the South is already a nation united in its desire to cut its caustic ties to the Northern government. The vast majority of those I spoke with saw the prospect of unity as impossible. Many scoffed at even the suggestion that there may be those in the South who, in the face of the history of Northern actions, could see the value of continued unity, much less cast a vote in its favor. These popular sentiments and expressions can understandably lead one to question the very feasibility of the referendum as free and fair. If one openly campaigns on behalf of unity he or she is often associated with the Northern regime, and the potential or perceived threat of violence or social isolation to those who would speak out openly in favor of unity appears very real.
While others I spoke with offered more tempered and moderate views on what would happen should the referendum fail, the youth may have been speaking with a candor and honesty that is only possible in the young. According to the students, the referendum represents the culmination of more than 50 years of struggle, standing as the final step in a long and painful march to independence, and the seminal opportunity to officially toss off the yoke of external subjugation, marginalization and violent suppression to which so many in the South have fallen victim. In the minds of those youth in Western Bahr el Ghazal, whether it be through ballot or bullet, there was no doubt where the future of their nation was headed. And when you have a populace that is so motivated and passionate, willing to go once more to the brink of war on existential grounds, it should inspire the international community to take their words not as threats, but as portents of what will come should they fail to help resolve those pressing issues that are most likely to derail the referendum process.