KHARTOUM/JUBA, (Reuters) – Sudan became the first state to recognise the independence of its oil-producing south on Friday, smoothing the way for the division on Saturday of Africa’s largest country but not dispelling fears of future tensions.
Underdeveloped South Sudan’s secession takes place at midnight (2100 GMT) tonight — a hard-won separation marking the climax of a process that began with an internationally brokered 2005 peace deal ending decades of north-south civil war.
“The Republic of Sudan declares its recognition of South Sudan as an independent and sovereign state as of July 9th 2011,” Khartoum’s Minister for Presidential Affairs Bakri Hassan Saleh told reporters, in the official English translation of the statement.
Sudan entered its last day as a united nation with rumblings of conflict along its north-south border and international concerns for the future stability of the huge, fractured and largely impoverished territory that straddles Arab and sub-Saharan Africa.
The looming independence sparked celebrations across the south — and in large diaspora southern communities from the United States to Australia — where many saw it as a moment of liberation after years of fighting and repression.
Dancers decked in South Sudan flags and leopard-print trousers marched through the streets of the ramshackle southern capital Juba on Friday, counting down the hours until Sudan split into two states.
“I’m very happy for the independence,” said Gabriel Yaac, 38, in central Juba.
“There is nothing bad in the future. If you are alone in your house you can manage your own things. No one will interrupt you.”
The new Republic of South Sudan contains around 75 percent of the country’s known oil reserves, depriving the Khartoum government of more than a third of its national revenues, the northern finance minister said last month.
Police and soldiers in Juba tried to keep a lid on the more boisterous revellers, banning celebratory gunfire, seizing weapons and searching cars, determined to protect the scores of dignitaries flowing into a city awash with small arms.
A red digital display on a city roundabout counted down the seconds to independence. “Free at last,” one message on the display board flashed.
In sharp contrast, the streets of the northern capital Khartoum were largely empty on Friday, the start of the weekend in the Muslim north.
“Losing the south will be difficult for a few years after losing the oil,” minibus driver Osman said. “But all we’ve had up to now is war. It is good we are going our separate ways.”
Other northerners see the separation as a tragedy — robbing Sudan of around a third of its territory and ending a dream of a diverse nation containing a vast patchwork of the continent’s cultures.
“This overwhelming of sorrow, of sadness is wrapping around us. I cannot put my feelings into words. It is beyond expression. I am in a vacuum. I want to go into hibernation,” the spokeswoman for the opposition UMMA party, Mariam al-Mahdi, told Reuters.
Soon after Saleh made his statement recognising the south, state media announced the Khartoum government had suspended six English-language or south-linked newspapers in the north — saying it was because southerners owned or published them.
The announcement will raise fears for the status of more than a million southerners who remain in the north, especially for those who own property or businesses.
Northern and southern leaders have still not signed formal agreements on the legal status of southerners in the north, and vice versa — and how they will manage oil revenues, the lifeblood of both economies. Other issues, including the ownership of the disputed Abyei region, have alarmed diplomats who fear the sides will return to war.
The north has the only pipelines in the country, and has threatened to block them if the south does not pay enough. Southern officials on Friday said they would be able to live off credit, using their oil reserves as collateral, if the north carried out its threat.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who will lead the north after the split, said on Thursday he would fly to Juba for the independence celebrations and promised friendly relations.
But he sent a stern message to rebels in the north, saying he would not take part in any more international peace talks with armed groups. Khartoum is fighting rebels in the Darfur region and, since early June, in its main remaining oil state Southern Kordofan. Both regions border the south.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan on Friday to change its mind and allow peacekeepers to stay in Southern Kordofan and other troubled northern areas, a day before the end of the peacekeepers’ mandate.
Khartoum has said it wants the blue helmets, deployed to monitor the 2005 peace deal, to leave.
“I have urged the Government of Sudan for technical and practical reasons for an extension of the mandate of the United Nations in Sudan, at least until the situation (in Southern Kordofan) calms down. We cannot afford to have any gaps,” Ban told journalists in Khartoum.
The U.N. Security Council voted on Friday to establish a new mission in South Sudan called UNMISS, with up to 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers and an additional 900 civilian police.