The outcome of South Sudan’s self-determination election, which will decide if the strategically-important region will secede from Sudan and create Africa’s newest independent state, could be announced as early next month.

The lengthy voting process, which got underway Jan. 9, has already generated a large turnout. A 60 percent turnout is required for the vote to be considered valid, online news site RTT News reported.

During the voting period, senior officials in the United States will have a high-profile presence in Sudan. The Obama administration is increasingly optimistic about a peaceful independence vote.

“We believe that this event will in fact go off successfully, that the organization and the diplomatic efforts that have been put into this will lead to a successful referendum,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told The New York Times. “We think that it will reflect the will of the people, that it will occur on time, peacefully and in a well-organized manner.”

More than 5 million Southern Sudanese are eligible to register for the landmark vote. However, a United Nations spokesperson said that more than half of those claiming eligibility had actually registered for participation in a different referendum, which was part of the 2005 U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between North and South Sudan to halt the deadly civil war that had raged on for 21 years.

Last month, panelists at a roundtable hosted by the group International Relief and Development in Washington, D.C. said the ramifications of Southern Sudanese independence remained unclear. The nation is rich in minerals and petroleum and is the largest nation by area on the African continent.

District of Columbia radio talk show host Kojo Nnamdi, who moderated the discussion, likened the Sudanese vote to the recent presidential election in Haiti, saying that, “History once again brings us to an election that meets at the clearly complicated intersection of hope, expectations and apprehension.”

Nnamdi also said that while the U. S. and other nations believe the Southern Sudanese want independence, it was uncertain whether they would be able to vote for it in a free and fair election. The referendum process came with serious technical requirements which the country’s existing technology infrastructure might not be able to support.

International Relief and Development Executive Director Jeff Greico said in a statement that there was still a lot of work to be done to secure the region’s future.

“But this is an unprecedented opportunity to ensure a sustained peace in Sudan,” he said. “The international community still owes the Southern Sudanese people assistance in establishing and ensuring peace and security.”