“There is no trust between the north and the south. Any delay will cause a crisis, suspicion is already rising. People want the referendum to come now,” Samuel Aban Deng told me as we sat in the neatly swept dirt courtyard of his family compound in Malakal, a town on the banks of the Nile. We were discussing the only thing anyone in south Sudan wants to talk about: the vote, due on 9th January, that is expected to split Africa’s biggest country and give birth to the world’s newest one. A referendum on southern independence was key to the internationally-backed peace deal in 2005, ending the last round of Sudan’s civil war which left some 2m dead and forced 4m to flee their homes. But there are doubts that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes) would honour the agreement.
As a senior courtier to the Shilluk tribal king, Deng’s modest home is grand compared with most in the town; the average person in south Sudan lives on less than £1 per day. Eagerness for independence among people here is deep-rooted: the British colonial rulers left in 1956, but southerners, who are mostly black with Christian or traditional beliefs and now number 9m, feel they were replaced by Arab Muslim ones from the north, based in Khartoum. “We were cheated,” Angelo Othou, a rheumy-eyed 75-year-old told me. His right index finger was stained blue with indelible ink, proof that he had registered to vote in the referendum.
Malakal is a place where north and south meet. In the market southern customers buy goods imported from the north, but there have been more deadly exchanges in the past. In 2006 and 2009, the northern and southern armies, barracked at either end of town, traded mortars, tank and gunfire, killing hundreds.
Today, signs of change are everywhere. At the broken quayside I saw piles of possessions belonging to arriving southerners who have decided it was time to come home. For some, it was threats from neighbours and officials in Khartoum that drove them south; for others, the chance to vote and be part of their new country’s birth. In the market, I found Arab traders warily letting their stocks dwindle, sending wives and children north and preparing to close up shop, hoping the move would be temporary but fearing it might be permanent.
South Sudan’s economy is pre-industrial, and its semi-autonomous government relies almost entirely on the revenues from oil exports, making trade with northerners (and other neighbours) essential. Yet locals were little concerned by the impending exodus of Arab traders. “I grew up with them, I know that we can never live with them,” shrugged Gabriel Gatluak Deng, a former state governor who turned from politics to catering when he lost elections in April. “How can we live together with the northerners who dominate us, abuse us, rule us? Sudan is an African country for black Africans; northerners should stay in the north.”
Such casual xenophobia is commonplace; yet in Sudan, ethnicity is a kaleidoscopic lens, not a polarising one. When discussion of animosities towards the north was over, the people I spoke to often turned on their neighbours with equal rancour. For now, independence is the common cause to which all southerners can rally, but the fears are that, even if the south manages to secede without sparking renewed war against the north, the emergent nation’s internal divisions will resurface and prove just as damaging.
Since the peace deal, thousands have died in gunfights between cattle-herders and farmers, or between different tribes over ownership of, or access to, scarce resources. A few months ago, a battle broke out between the Shilluk, who dominate around Malakal, and the Dinka, seen by some as intruders. That conflict was quickly defused, but it revealed the levels of deadly distrust between communities. As Samuel Aban Deng warns: “The bigger threat to an independent south Sudan is not from the outside, it is from within.”