About the Southern Sudan Referendum

What is the 2011 Southern Sudan Referendum?

On January 9th, 2011, the people of Southern Sudan will vote to decide whether to remain part of Sudan or become an independent country.

This vote, or referendum, was agreed upon as a key element of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement called the Naivasha Agreement. Negotiated between Sudan’s central government in Khartoum and the primarily Southern Sudanese group called Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement, the Naivasha Agreement officially ended the decades-long Second Sudanese Civil War, which killed roughly two million people.

How will the Referendum work?

In order for the referendum’s results to be considered valid, the vote must have a sixty percent turnout or higher. If then a simple majority of voters favor independence, Southern Sudan will become an independent country.  If there is not at least a sixty percent turnout, a second referendum will be held within sixty days.


The referendum is an extremely important part of the long process towards achieving sustainable peace in the region. But the vote also faces many complexities.


The Second Sudanese Civil War displaced around four million people, primarily Southern Sudanese. Many of these Sudanese have remained displaced, both within Sudan and outside its borders. While some have returned home for the referendum, many have not: around two million Sudanese are in refugee camps near Khartoum, in the north of the country, and many more are in camps in Uganda and Kenya. Additionally, around five million Sudanese are nomadic.

These issues, combined with the general difficulty of travel in Sudan as a result of landmines and the effects of decades of war on infrastructure, present challenges to the referendum. The South Sudan Referendum Commission has taken steps to mitigate this issue by establishing polling stations all around the country, in both the North and the South.


The displacement and mobility issues discussed above have already been problematic by making the taking of an accurate census of the population more difficult. An accurate census is important for a multiple reasons: to determine what number of people constitutes the sixty percent mark necessary for the vote, as well as helping determine how to proceed with dividing resources between north and south if Southern Sudan decides to become independent. Nonetheless, a new Census for the country was completed in 2010.

Tribal Differences

Some people fear that there may be violence both before and after the referendum. For instance, some have predicted that without the unifying goal of an independent Southern Sudan to work towards, tribal differences in the south may result in conflict, especially if the region gains independence. Others, however, claim that the likelihood for conflict between different factions in Southern Sudan is minimal.

Post-referendum arrangements

If the referendum results in South Sudan declaring independence, the separation will formally take place in July 2011. There are a number of issues that will need to be resolved in the interim. Two that are causing concern are arrangements for sharing oil wealth and issues of citizenship.

Southern Sudan holds most of the country’s oil, while pipelines carry oil for export into northern Sudan for export. Some fear that if Southern Sudan becomes independent, disputes over the future of this important resource could provoke violence.

The citizenship situation for Southerners currently residing in the North (whether as a result of internal displacement or economic migration) have not been agreed upon.


In addition to the Southern Sudanese referendum, a second important referendum is scheduled to take place on January 9th in Abyei, a small region that straddles the border between Sudan’s north and south. The referendum in Abyei will determine whether it becomes part of Northern or Southern Sudan. Accordingly, Abyei’s future might depend on the outcome of the Southern Sudanese referendum, whose outcome could determine whether the region joins an independent Southern Sudan or remains under Khartoum’s jurisdiction.

The Abyei referendum has been plagued with difficulties – mainly on reaching an agreement as to who is eligible to vote – and may take place after January 9.

While the Abyei region is relatively small, this referendum is extremely important to the entire country, since Abyei holds significant amounts of oil, as well as an important oil pipeline for Sudan’s oil exports. It is also the locus for an ongoing dispute over land between the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya, which last flared up in June 2009.

Furthermore, as part of 1972 peace agreement that ended the First Sudanese Civil War, Abyei was promised the right to decide whether to join the north or the south – this right was denied, and was arguably one of the triggers for Sudan’s Second Civil War.