With Sudan at a crossroads, can US help it avoid another Darfur?

Sudan is set to hold a referendum in 100 days on whether to split in two. With tensions rising and the Sudan government hedging, the US is stepping up its involvement.

Chip East/Reuters
President Obama speaks during a high level meeting on Sudan at the United Nations headquarters in New York Friday.

With Sudan in some estimations moving closer to renewed civil war, the international community is rallying behind a referendum process that will decide whether the northern African country is split in two.

The concerns about Sudan have led to a flurry of initiatives from global powers and the international human-rights community – including a high-level meeting at the United Nations Friday. President Obama attended the meeting, demonstrating the importance the US and other powers give to the upcoming referendum.

But the referendum in Sudan’s oil-rich south is now just 100 days away – a short time, many experts say, to set up and ensure a credible voting process. And with the government in Khartoum rumbling with misgivings about the referendum and the peace settlement that established it, some experts are warning that Sudan could plunge into the kind of fighting that traumatized the south and the western region of Darfur earlier this decade.

“There could not be a more critical time in the life of Sudan and in the effort to ensure that these referenda go off on time and peacefully,” says Samantha Power, Mr. Obama’s director for multinational affairs in the National Security Council.

The referendum process

The southern Sudan peace accord signed in 2005 provides for two referendums: one to determine if the south secedes, and if it does, a second allowing the small oil-endowed region of Abyei to decide whether to attach itself to the north or the south.

At Friday’s meeting, President Obama said the presence of so many African and other leaders showed how the world is “united” behind Sudan’s peace process. Yet he said that preparations for the referenda remain behind schedule, and he placed responsibility for that on the government in Khartoum. He said the government still has to demonstrate whether it “will have the courage to walk the path” to peace.

Obama held out the prospect of improved US-Sudan relations if the leadership in Khartoum respects and facilitates the referendum process. That scenario could lead to the US supporting agricultural and other development in Sudan, he said, and “eventually working to lift sanctions – if Sudanese leaders fulfill their obligations."

In addition to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called the meeting, and a large number of African leaders, participants included Sudan’s two vice presidents, one each for the north and the south. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir did not risk traveling to New York, as the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide and war crimes committed in Dafur.

Obama’s decision to attend Friday’s meeting gave it a higher profile than it would have had otherwise. But some observers worry that Darfur is falling out of the spotlight – opening the opportunity for violence. Others differ with the US approach to the Sudanese government.

“Clearly President Obama has become engaged in Sudan in a way he hasn’t been since he took office,” says John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an initiative aimed at ending genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa.

Tough talk needed?

But he disagrees with the administration’s approach of laying out the incentives that are on the table for Sudan – as Obama did at Friday’s meeting – without emphasizing the consequences as well.

“Obama needs to be clear that there will be consequences for plunging southern Sudan back into civil war, and that [the leadership] must be held accountable for war crimes.”

Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha praised Obama’s “new direction” and “positive” approach to the Sudan issue – praise that will probably feed critics who say Obama is too accommodating of Khartoum

Mr. Prendergast says he also disagrees with recent statements from administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, suggesting that all sides in the Sudanese conflict need to be malleable and compromise.

With Sudan’s revenue from southern oil fields hanging in the balance, some experts in the conflict say Mr. Bashir’s regime needs tough talk to hold it to envisioned revenue-sharing schemes.

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