Let the People Decide

The bishops of Sudan have issued an official statement warning that the country could return to widespread violence unless political leaders speed up preparation work ahead of the all-important referendum on the future of the south.

At the end of an extraordinary plenary session, the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a document detailing a lack of progress towards the vote on whether the south should secede to become a separate country or remain part of a united Sudan.

Noting the deadline of January 9, 2011 for the referendum as set out in the peace deal which formally ended Sudan’s 21-year civil war, the bishops make clear that inadequate progress could lead to violence affecting the whole of the country.

Among nine key deficiencies spelled out in the statement released earlier this week, the bishops claim that voter registration has yet to begin, referendum awareness-raising work has barely started and crucially the north-south border has not been demarcated, a factor influencing voter eligibility.

The statement, a copy of which was sent to Aid to the Church in Need, goes on to state that in five years Sudan “has come a long way” since the civil war and that a more lasting peace is possible, with increased awareness of human rights and greater acceptance of tribal, religious and cultural differences.  But the bishops stress that such progress could be jeopardised by further setbacks in referendum preparation work.

In the statement, the bishops conclude: “We remain deeply concerned that the time remaining before the due date [of the referendum] is painfully short and inadequate.”

Outlining the ongoing tensions in key parts of southern Sudan, the document continues: “We fear that dissatisfaction [with the referendum process] in transitional areas may lead to violence which could derail any peaceful future for the whole of Sudan.”

A source close to the Bishops’ Conference underlined that southern Sudanese were in no mood to compromise on the referendum date: He said: “The people are not ready to accept a postponement whatever the reason coming from [politicians in] the north or the south.”

More than five years have passed since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which formally brought to an end Africa’s longest-running civil war, but in that time regional tensions have continued to spark conflict.

The bishops’ statement highlights security concerns centering on Abyei, an oil-rich region on the border between north and south.

Although the bishops acknowledge that referendum voter eligibility in the area has been officially agreed, they highlight concerns that a referendum commission has not been set up, meaning that the election process risks breaking down, especially as “currents of dissatisfaction” persist in the region.

The statement also outlines tensions in the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains, indicating fears that the referendum process in both regions risks being manipulated, sparking unrest among the people.

ACN’s Sudan source said: “If the people feel that there has been a manipulation of the referendum process, they may take the law into their own hands.”

Underlining potential government manipulation of voters, he spoke of fears that southerners living in the north may come under pressure from the Khartoum regime.

He added that the concerns had been heightened by Sudan’s general election in April which took place amid allegations of vote rigging and other forms of electoral malpractice.

Sudan is a priority country for Aid to the Church in Need which concentrates on help for Christian education, the training of seminarians, support for catechists, Sisters, Mass stipends, church construction, Childs’ Bibles and other catechetical materials.

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