South Sudan Decides Its Future in Vote on Independence

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This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

On Sunday, the people of southern Sudan begin deciding whether or not to become the world's newest nation. A week of voting is expected to split Africa's largest country in two.

Friday was the final day of campaigning. Southern Sudanese paraded through Juba, their possible future capital.

The vote comes from a peace agreement six years ago. Almost four million people have registered to vote. David Gressly, the top United Nations official in the south, says voting centers are ready.

DAVID GRESSLY: "[The] security situation is calm. It’s been calm for a number of weeks. So we think this is going to start on time. It will go very peacefully."

Observers from around the world have gathered in Sudan for the voting. Final results are not expected for several weeks.

Many southerners have been returning from the north. They fear the unknown. Yet so do many northern Sudanese. They have urged southerners to vote for unity.

But many southerners feel their part of the country has been treated unfairly by the central government in Khartoum.

The peace agreement was signed in January of two thousand five. It ended more than twenty years of civil war between the north and the south.

The conflict cost an estimated two million lives. It also prevented most economic development in the south -- one of the poorest areas in the world.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Juba on Tuesday. He says his government will respect the results of the vote. The southern leader, Salva Kiir, has promised the same.

Historically, southern Sudan has had greater cultural and economic ties to East Africa than to the Arab-led government in Khartoum. The north is majority Muslim. The south is mainly Christians and animists who follow traditional African religions.

44 million people live in Sudan. Estimates of how many of them live in the south are between about 7.5 million and nearly 10 million.

Most of the oil in Sudan is in the south. But the oil is processed and exported -- at least for now -- from Port Sudan in the north. Rosie Sharpe from the environmental rights group Global Witness say that means the north and south will have to cooperate. The two sides will have to settle other issues of borders, citizenship rights and water. But the biggest issue is oil.

The peace agreement divided oil earnings. The south gets almost all of its money from oil. But that wealth-sharing deal ends when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement expires this July.

Ms. Sharpe says any future deal needs to be more in the open. She says no one is even sure exactly how much oil Sudan produces. China has the largest oil pumping operation there.

Justin Willis, an East Africa researcher at Britain’s Durham University, says Sudan's oil industry is deep in mystery.

JUSTIN WILLIS: "There are complicated special deals involving the output from each of the fields. Unsurprisingly there has been a lot of suspicion in Juba that they are not getting what they are supposed to get, and this really is a very major issue for the future."

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Scott Bobb and Selah Hennessy

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