Stakes high in vote on Sudan's south

Major push to preserve peace and organize referendum
From Africa Renewal: 
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UN helicopter delivers voter registration materials to Torit, in southern Sudan, in advance of the referendumUN helicopter delivers voter registration materials to Torit, in southern Sudan, in advance of the referendum.
UN Photo / Tim McKulka

With Sudan moving towards a referendum to determine whether the south remains part of the country or secedes, the United Nations and the rest of the international community have launched a major diplomatic push to keep the troubled process on track. The referendum, together with a separate poll on the status of the disputed oil centre of Abyei, is scheduled for 9 January 2011.

The votes are the centrepiece of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM) that ended more than two decades of civil war in the south. More than 2 million people died during the conflict and some 4.6 million were driven from their homes.

Granting the southern Sudanese the right to self-determination was an extraordinary provision on a continent where colonial-era borders are considered untouchable. The complex accord also established an interim national unity government, including a regional government in southern Sudan headed by the SPLM. In addition, it set a formula for revenue sharing between north and south, allowed residents of the border town of Abyei to choose whether to affiliate with north or south, created a local power sharing formula in two violence-stricken border states and established lasting ceasefire and security arrangements.

'A ticking time bomb'

The CPA envisioned that implementation of the plan would "make unity attractive" to southerners and perhaps persuade them to stay part of Sudan. But after nearly six years and the presence of more than 30,000 peacekeeping troops in two separate missions (in southern Sudan and Darfur), tensions remain high and the prospects for unity have grown dimmer. Many observers now expect that southern Sudan will vote for independence, and are uncertain about the Khartoum government's response. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as "a ticking time bomb" in September.

That same month UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned world leaders in New York that delays in preparations for the south Sudanese and Abyei polls were jeopardizing the scheduled date of 9 January. "The Sudanese people cannot afford a resumption of conflict," he said. "The stakes are high, for Sudan, for Africa, for the international community."

Since then there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity, including establishment of a UN panel to monitor preparations for the referenda headed by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa. The Security Council sent a mission to Sudan headed by US Ambassador Susan Rice, and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired a high-level Security Council meeting on Sudan in November.

Signs of progress

Africa has also ramped up its diplomacy. In mid-November former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the head of an African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, announced a "framework agreement" by the parties to resolve an array of post-referendum issues that are contributing to the tensions. These include the demarcation of borders, citizenship and civil rights issues, the resolution of longstanding ethnic, land and political disputes in Abyei and, most critically, a formula for revenue sharing in the event of southern independence. About 80 per cent of the petroleum reserves in Sudan, Africa's third largest producer, are located in the south, and agreement on the allocation of oil revenue is considered vital to the success of the referendum and to future north-south relations.

Mr. Ban and other speakers at the November Security Council meeting welcomed the launch of voter registration in south Sudan and noted that senior officials from both sides had affirmed their commitment to peacefully resolve remaining problems and respect the will of the voters.

Good news — and bad

But as Africa Renewal went to press at the end of November, such signs of progress were tempered by reminders of the remaining challenges. The continuing conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur is chief among them, as is the threat of violence over the continuing political deadlock over Abyei. The Security Council is considering increasing the number of peacekeepers with the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in the south during the voting and UN humanitarian officials are seeking $63 mn to stockpile relief supplies in the event of civil unrest. "The coming months are likely to be difficult for the people of Sudan," Mr. Ban told the Security Council in November. "The government of Sudan, the government of southern Sudan and the referenda commissions must rise to this chal