Little more than one month ago, I urged Eureka Street readers to stand by the people of Sudan in their moment of hope and fear. Today, we can reflect on the challenges overcome and those that still lie ahead for the people of what look sure be independent North and South Sudanese states.
During the Christmas season, we anxiously awaited a historic referendum: the keystone to Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement. As we prayed for a peaceful outcome, we prepared for the worst; while January's vote held for Sudan the promise of desperately-needed change, the threat of violence and bloody civil war once again loomed in the region.
From 9 January, Sudanese people flocked by the millions to polling stations across the south and queued for hours to imprint their thumb on ballot papers. As the polls closed on 14 January, more than 3.1 million voters in Southern Sudan — 83 per cent of those registered — had voted.
Whether they voted in favour of unity or for independent states, this act of self-determination was the first step towards lasting peace in Sudan.
The final result of the referendum is due to be announced on 14 February, but the preliminary count shows more than 98 per cent of voters in favour of secession. It appears likely that Southern Sudan will declare its independence from the North in July 2011.
To date our worst fears have been allayed. Neither the vote nor its presumed outcome have ignited the bloody conflict of Sudan's past, and mass migration from North to South — more than 1.5 million people so far — has not yet created the kind of humanitarian challenge aid agencies prepared for.
But a vote for independence, despite its political and symbolic significance, is just the beginning for a vulnerable Southern Sudan. The people now face the challenge of nation-building, no easy feat for a region plagued by political rivalry and displaying some of the world's worst development indicators.
Following the release of results later this month, the leaders of both the North and the South will be charged with negotiating the logistics of an arduous separation.
During six months of transition, they must decide how borders will be demarcated; how citizenship for those displaced from their homes shall be determined; how Sudan's debts ought to be divided; and how valuable oil, water, and mineral resources will be shared.
Until independence is declared in mid-2011, the threat of violence remains high.
Although in secession the South stands to acquire up to 80 per cent of Sudan's oil resources, some commentators have already condemned Southern Sudan to ranks of 'failed state'.
There is no doubt the success of Africa's newest nation will depend upon the support of many — not least of which is a stable and secure North — but if southern Sudan is to succeed as an independent state it first depends upon our vote of confidence.
Since being granted semi-autonomous governance in 2005, Southern Sudan has functioned and developed — albeit tenuously — as an independent state. In five years, the population has grown by 13 per cent, and within metropolitan areas business enterprise is steadily on the rise.
Of course there is still a perilously long course to chart, particularly in marginal communities where education and health indications are abhorrently low.
For more than a decade, Caritas Australia has worked in Sudan to improve water and sanitation, education and livelihood opportunities. As the people of Southern Sudan embark upon a new and challenging journey towards nationhood, the work will continue for aid agencies such as Caritas.
With the region's political stability at the forefront of international dialogue and commentary, we must remain focused on the humanitarian challenges that lie ahead. War in Sudan would threaten the lives of more than one million southerners currently living in the north, and without peace, poverty and hunger will take a firm hold on already vulnerable communities.
At least 70 per cent of Southern Sudan's population is Catholic, a fact that underscores the capacity of the Caritas network, in partnership with local Catholic agencies, to respond effectively to increased needs and to amplify the voice of Sudanese people living in Australia.
Last week Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd attended the African Union Summit in Ethiopia. While some chose to take a critical view of Australia's increasing engagement in Africa, our nation's growing investment in some of the world's poorest communities is a welcome sign for Sudan.
Sudan's fate may appear all but sealed, and with tensions erupting in neighbouring Egypt it is easy to turn our gaze from Africa's largest nation. But with poverty and prosperity hanging precariously in the balance, there could not be a worse time to forget Sudan.
Jack de Groot is Chief Executive Officer of Caritas Australia, Secretary to the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Justice and Development, and Adjunct Professor, Australian Catholic University. Image: Men wait in line to vote in Juba, Sudan. By Sara A. Fajardo, Catholic Relief Services