Sudan's Bashir softens tone in rare visit to semiautonomous South

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir said Tuesday that he would 'celebrate' South Sudan's decision on whether to secede after its Jan. 9 referendum on the issue.

By , Correspondent

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    Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (c.) is escorted by Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (l.) as he arrives at the airport in South Sudan's capital of Juba on Tuesday, Jan. 4. Bashir visited Juba just five days before South Sudanese are set to vote in a referendum that could see the region secede from the north to form the world's newest country.
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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made a rare visit to South Sudan Tuesday, just days ahead of this oil-rich region’s Jan. 9 vote on independence.

In an address to senior southern leaders, Mr. Bashir promised just about all the South Sudanese could have expected from the former general who had once helped wage a brutal war against the region before a 2005 peace deal.

“I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession," Bashir said, in an attempt to allay widespread concerns that his Arab-dominated government in Khartoum would refuse to accept Sunday's vote. "Even after the southern state is born, we are ready in the Khartoum government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice – we are ready to help."

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Sudan’s independent history is littered with broken promises, and on the eve of their long-awaited referendum, southerners are reluctant to buy into new ones from the Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP). Still, Bashir's change in tone could be a logical move for his government, which will need to forge positive relations with its new neighbor for its own security and stability.

“These positive signals are obviously welcome, particularly given the inflammatory rhetoric that has plagued the political arena and fueled tensions [lately],” says Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Those [within Bashir's government] who are resigned to the reality of partition are growing in number … they are instead focused on securing the party’s political and economic control in a postreferendum North.”

A softer Bashir

Southern officials welcomed Bashir’s positive comments in Juba, which come on the heels of equally encouraging remarks last week in which the president said his government would be the “first to recognize” an independent south.

They emphasized, though, that much work remains to be done if the north and south are to embark upon peaceful relations following the South's secession.

Should the South choose independence, the breakup of Africa’s largest country will occur in July, six months after this Sunday’s vote, per the terms of the 2005 North-South peace deal that ended more than two decades of war between Khartoum and the southern rebels.

African Union-mediated negotiations in recent months have not yet yielded any concrete agreements on issues that directly impact future relations between North and South, including demarcation of the 1,300-mile long North-South border, which is disputed in several resource-rich areas.

Vote preparations on schedule

All signs are pointing to an on-time vote on Jan. 9, which comes as a welcome surprise to many observers and analysts, who forecasted problems early last summer when disputes between Khartoum and Juba dogged the process of standing up the commission charged with carrying out the vote.

On Monday in Juba, the top southern official in the referendum commission announced that the body was “100 percent prepared” for the Sunday vote. Ballot papers had been delivered and training of polling staff was almost complete, said Justice Chan Reec Madut, while noting that some challenges related to funding – which has to date “not been forthcoming” from the Khartoum government – remained.

Tensions remain over contested border zone

Bashir’s remarks were a step in the right direction, but more discussions are needed, says Deng Alor, the minister of regional cooperation in the southern government,

Mr. Alor cited the contested border zone of Abyei as an area of particular concern and said that the meeting between Bashir and the South's leaders would include discussion of the still unresolved future status of Abyei, whose residents had been promised their own self-determination vote in the 2005 North-South peace deal.

The NCP's refusal to implement a number of existing agreements related to Abyei – including a 2009 ruling in The Hague on the contested boundaries of the area – could increase the risk of North-South violence after the vote, says Alor.

“If we don’t resolve the Abyei issue," he says, "there will be two independent hostile states and nobody wants that."

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