When one side declares that it received 99 per cent of the vote, a measure of scepticism is in order. But not necessarily so for the recent referendum in south Sudan. After preliminary results were announced yesterday, with 99.57 per cent of votes counted for independence, there was barely a peep from the international community about voting irregularities. Even Khartoum has taken south Sudan's secession as a fait accompli.
The referendum is historic, even set against other events in North Africa. It provides a stamp of approval for the first major revision of Africa's borders since Eritrea broke from Ethiopia. But a new state will span a network of tribal and communal divisions that predates colonial rule. The referendum should be seen as a rejection of Khartoum, not a ringing endorsement of south Sudan's unity.
Even if most observers can swallow the 99.57 majority announced by the dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), another statistic should raise eyebrows: election officials in Juba said 99 per cent of eligible voters in the south turned out. In one of the most linguistically diverse regions in Africa, in the absence of a comprehensive census, and with literacy rates of about 24 per cent, voter registration was always going to be an uneven project.
The challenge of governing such a diverse and divided area endures, even if the vote to establish the Republic of South Sudan, as the new state is tentatively named, has concluded. So far, the country's president Salva Kiir, more experienced on the battlefield than the political arena, has made the right noises by urging a peaceful and patient transition and a continued partnership with Khartoum.
The vote was carried out with a remarkable degree of calm, but tribal and factional frictions remain. There are no fewer than four tribal revolts simmering in south Sudan; last summer, SPLM-led forces razed dozens of villages belonging to the Shilluk tribe, the third largest ethnic group in south Sudan. The SPLM, dominated by the larger Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, has to reach across tribal lines to build a nation.
Last week, Mr Kiir ordered the army to "consolidate the security" in the 10 states of south Sudan. Further uncertainty looms in the disputed regions of South Kurdufan, Blue Nile and Abyei, where violence flared earlier this month.
The SPLM won a victory in this referendum. A new republic will almost certainly be born in July but whether it is representative of south Sudan's people remains to be seen. The ruling party has won its last 99 per cent majority. Closer votes and compromises will have to be a part of its future.