01/24/2011 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A New Chapter in Southern Sudan

Six months ago, many were skeptical that a peaceful and orderly referendum in Southern Sudan could happen. After decades of war and bloodshed, the Sudanese government was set to plan and implement a referendum that might reshape the map of Africa and would certainly impact all the people of Sudan, North and South.

The logistical challenges alone were daunting. Sudan is a country where more than 100 languages are spoken and, in the Texas-sized South, 75 percent of the estimated 8.26 million southerners can neither read nor write. During the rainy season, even state capitals are difficult to reach by road; reaching the rural areas where many southerners live is virtually impossible except on foot. Then there were the millions of Sudanese who fled the south during the conflict and war to places as divergent as Northern Sudan and as far away as Australia. No small task when your goal is to ensure everyone's voice is heard.

The referendum process started six years ago, when the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political party of the Southern Sudan Liberation Army, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended 22 years of a bitter civil war. The 2008 census was a milestone, not only establishing population figures but also allocating representation in the National Assembly in Khartoum and in the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly in Juba.

Although observers found that the April 2010 elections did not meet international standards, it was a giant step towards a democratic system and allowed the Sudanese people to choose representatives who would shepherd them through the referendum, whether it resulted in unity or secession. While the Government worked on the vote, local and international aid organizations mobilized to improve living conditions throughout the south and northern border areas to illustrate the benefits of peace - improving water and sanitation, providing health and education services, and developing agriculture and infrastructure, where all done with the intent of a peaceful and seamless transition.

Last summer, when I first visited Sudan, obstacles to the referendum loomed. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) in Khartoum and its subsidiary, the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau in Juba, had only recently been established in July 2010. It took two months for a SSRC secretary general to be named and many assumed that little preparation was taking place. Behind the scenes, international advisers from the United Nations and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a USAID-funded partner, were busy designing registration materials. Just six weeks after the secretary general was named, voter registration materials arrived in-country and were delivered to registration sites throughout the country. Extensive voter education for both the registration and polling process was carried out through radio broadcasts, churches, and domestic groups.

Registration began on November 15 and continued for 24 days. Ultimately more than 3.9 million Sudanese registered to vote, most in the South but also 116,857 in the North and 60,219 in eight other countries. The same team of Sudanese and international partners then cooperated on the design and procurement of balloting materials, which were delivered to Sudan December 23. Nearly 14,000 poll workers were trained by the time the vote began, as were another 8,000 domestic monitors from Sudanese civil society organizations and political parties.

Two weeks ago, these seemingly disparate elements all came together after years of waiting and anticipation, the election began. There was little of the disorder, confusion, and even violence that many had predicted. What we witness was awe inspiring hope and gratitude. Unofficial estimates indicate that over 80 percent of registered Sudanese voted in the referendum. The votes are now being counted. But even as few doubt the outcome, the population has projected a profound collective dignity, reflecting an awareness of the enormity of the step just taken and the challenges that lie ahead.

None of this could have happened without Sudan's commitment to the peace process and the sustained engagement of long-time international partners in both diplomacy and development. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement partners must yet agree on many post-referendum issues, including citizenship, border demarcation, and oil. But the recently concluded, well-managed, and credible referendum that has met the aspirations of the southern Sudanese has the potential to create conditions for sustainable peace and good governance throughout Sudan.

Larry Garber is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development.