Voting has just begun in a week-long referendum amongst Southern Sudanese, on whether or not they should leave Sudan and go it alone.

Following decades of violence, it’s hard to see how the people of Southern Sudan will not vote for independence. As the deserts of the north make way for grasslands, forests and swamps of the south, the people change as drastically as the landscape. The predominately Arabic-speaking Muslim northerners are totally different from the tribal Christian or Animist southerners. In the north, 50% or more of children complete primary school, whereas this figure drops to closer to 1% in parts of the South. Infant mortality nearly doubles if you travel between Khartoum and Juba, capitals of each part of Sudan. Over 2/3rds of people in the northern Khartoum, River Nile and Gezira states have access to piped drinking water or pit latrines, as opposed to under 20% of southerners without any form of toilet.

The greatest quarrel is over the enforcement of Islam in the South. Predominately Christian or of traditional African religions, Southerners have had efforts from the al-Bashir government in Khartoum to enforce Islam going on for decades. Indeed, it has only been the presence of Southern Sudanese resistance to Islamification that has prevented Sharia law dominating in Sudan – a process President Bashir will surely reverse.

Clearly, the South has a case for independence. But can they make it. Let’s be realistic – this is a country the size of France and Germany combined, with a population of 7-10 million, no major infrastructure, landlocked, and which depends on foreign aid for food security. This looks like the world’s newest failed state in the making, a country among the world’s have-notes. Truly, tragic.

The one thing Southern Sudan may have is oil. Sudan is an oil-rich nation, the 20th largest producer in the world. Southern Sudan produces 80% of this oil, but receives only 50% of the proceeds – and the oil, currently, all has to travel through Northern Sudan. Abyei is one of the largest oil producing regions and is holding a separate referendum on which state to join.

Currently 98% of Southern Sudan’s revenue comes from oil – if this is threatened, the majority will not be affected, as 85% of Southern Sudanese subsist entirely on agriculture, but an inability to pay soldiers will lead to instability, and the country has little enough to spend on improving infrastructure as it is. And Sudan will not give up the oil without a fight.

This strangle-hold the north could hold over the fledgling south could soon be nullified, with Lamu, a port in Kenya, being heralded as the new largest port in East Africa. With Chinese backing, Kenya plans to transform Lamu into a new hub for international trade. With Mombasa and Dar es Salaam at full capacity, a new pipeline and superhighway from Juba to Lamu would enable this country greater security in its first few years. The case for independence for the people of Southern Sudan grows stronger.

But what do we mean by “Southern Sudanese”. Just because they are non-Arabs, doesn’t really hint at unity within Southern Sudan. The Dinka and the Nuer are the largest of over 200 culturally-independent tribes. Inter-tribal conflict, such as we see the world over, from Afghanistan to Somalia, could, if the situation is not handled correctly, cause as many problems as elsewhere. They have been united in the past against Khartoum, but how strong is their loyalty to Juba?

60 of those registered must vote for the result to be valid. Results should be in 6th or 14th of February, depending on if there are appeals. If the vote is for independence, then Southern Sudan should become the world’s newest nation on the 9th of July, 2011.

Good luck Southern Sudan. You’re going to need it.

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