Historic Vote for Independence
In a historic seven-day secessionist referendum that began in southern Sudan on January 9, 2011, 98.8% of voters chose independence from the north. Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir accepted the results and said he would not seek reelection when his term expires in 2015.
The Bush administration negotiated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which in addition to setting the date of the referendum also called for people in the contested region of Abyei to participate in the vote. That vote, however, has been delayed because a decision on what constitutes a resident of Abyei has not been reached. Tribal leaders in the region have made it clear that their loyalty lies with the south, but there has not been a date set for a vote in Abyei. Any declaration of affiliation with the south by Abyei could trigger an attack from the north. Abyei sits between northern and southern Sudan and has historically served as a bridge between the two. When voting began in southern Sudan, at least 23 people died in Abyei, confirming speculation that the region continues to be a matter of contention. In May 2011, armed forces from Sudan seized control of Abyei, which the south Sudanese government called an act of war. More than 20,000 people fled and the United Nations sent an envoy to intervene.
In July 2011, after years of fighting, the Republic of South Sudan declared its independence and became Africa's 54th state. Thousands celebrated in the streets of South Sudan's capital, Juba. Kiir, South Sudan's president, signed the interim Constitution. However, even as South Sudan celebrated its independence, Abyei's uncertainty was only one obstacle that awaits the fledgling state. South Sudan becomes one of the poorest countries in the world with half of the population living on less than $1 per day and an adult literacy rate of less than 25%. South Sudan also needs to establish a new government and constitution.
Instability and conflict with Sudan over oil plagued South Sudan since independence. Sudan launched air attacks into South Sudan, the north accused the south of arming militants in the north, and both accused each other of inciting a border war. Tension between the two nations peaked in early 2012 as the economies in both countries continued to shrink and a food crisis intensified in the south, emphasizing the need for oil revenues. As a full-scale war loomed, the two sides negotiated a non-aggression agreement under pressure from the African Union, the U.S., and China. Within days, however, South Sudan accused the north of violating the agreement.
The countries teetered on the brink of border war in April 2012. South Sudan took over disputed oil fields in Heglig, a move the African Union and the UN called illegal. Both sides traded ground and aerial attacks, and Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir said South Sudan he would not negotiate with South Sudan because it only responds to "the gun and bullets." The South withdrew from the contested region, but the aggression continued, prompting the African Union to give the two sides three months to resolve the issues over oil and the disputed border.
July 9, 2012 marked the one-year anniversary of South Sudan's independence. There was little to celebrate as tensions persist and the biggest issues—the border and oil—remain not only unresolved, but a source of violent outbreaks. African Union-sponsored talks have taken place, but both countries face sanctions from the U.N. Security Council if compromise is not achieved by Aug. 2.