However, with the voter registration for the referendum now over, it is a forgone conclusion that the January 9 referendum could mark the creation of a new state in Africa’s largest country.
The SPLM leadership has unequivocally campaigned for independence.
Backed by civil society organisations, the leadership says the Khartoum regime failed to make unity attractive during the 50 years of independence and during the six-year interim period following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
For that reason, they say, secession is the only way to go. Similar sentiments have been echoed by southerners living in different parts of the country as well as those in the Diaspora.
The January referendum is the centrepiece of the 2005 CPA that brought an end to one of Africa’s longest civil wars in which two million people died largely due to war-induced hunger and disease and four million others were displaced.
Significantly, the CPA grants South Sudan a six-year period of administrative autonomy, after which the population can decide in a referendum whether to stay in a united Sudan or secede. That time is well nigh.
A key guiding principle of independent Africa has been the need to maintain the existing political map of the continent.
As a result of fears that one territorial change could trigger a multitude of land swaps and end in geopolitical chaos, the leaders of newly independent African states in the late 1950s and early 1960s pledged to maintain the international boundaries as devised by the colonial powers. Now, it looks like Sudan is on the road to partition, providing plenty of work for cartographers.
It is noteworthy that there have been remarkably few changes to the continental map since the late colonial period.
The giant French colonies in west and central Africa have broken up into their constituent parts, although this involved turning provincial boundaries into international borders rather than drawing new lines on the map.
Senegal and The Gambia tried to federate, but their attempt failed, while the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar provides the only major, lasting example of boundary change over the past 50 years.
Control of Windhoek passed from South Africa to Namibia, while the fate of Western Sahara remains to be determined. However, the map of Africa is substantively the one created by the European powers.
The creation of a new country in southern Sudan is, therefore, likely to have effects beyond the region.
It will set a precedent that could have repercussions throughout the continent, providing a concrete example that boundaries can be changed.
South Sudan’s first president and gallant fighter, Dr John Garang, who has since died, could have unwittingly set the mood for secession soon after the signing of the CPA at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium.
Said he: “Unity is crucial in the implementation of this agreement. The challenge now is for the Sudanese to reconcile so that they can vote for unity during the referendum. If the government doesn’t sufficiently and fundamentally change, why should we vote to become second class citizens in our own country?”
Whereas the Sudan People’s Liberation Army had not set out to fight for independence and may have been content with a greater degree of self-determination, eventual independence for the south now looks more likely than ever.
I concur with the Kenyan MPs who recently visited South Sudan and urged their brothers and sisters to turn out in large numbers and vote for independence. This is the only way they can free themselves from the yoke of the dictatorial Khartoum regime.