South Sudan referendum plans seem shaky

The South Sudan referendum scheduled for January could be delayed because important issues between South Sudan and the Sudanese government remain unresolved.

Pete Muller/AP
A southern Sudanese woman chants along with pro-independence activists as they march through the southern capital of Juba, on Sept. 9.

Matthew Majok seemed strangely unperturbed as he explained why the family has not returned to planting as many crops as it did prior to Sudan’s decades-long civil war, which ended five years ago.

“We think there might be another war,” said the thin-framed patriarch, as if talking of the year’s rainfall.

Mr. Majok, who lost three sons during the conflict, is not unique: 43 percent of South Sudanese think that a renewed war between north and south is imminent, according to a recent poll conducted in partnership with the London School of Economics. Only 28 percent think that the peace will hold.

Why the pessimism? “We want independence, but the Arabs don’t want this,” the local chief said, referring to the Arab-dominated government in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

Under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), southerners are to get their chance to secede from the rest of Sudan in a January 2011 referendum. But with less than five months remaining before the vote, many here doubt that the government in Khartoum – led by president Omar al-Bashir, facing war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court – will actually let them go so easily.

Obama’s new push

President Obama hopes to help convince Sudan’s leaders to do just that as he ramps up diplomatic intervention, including a meeting with Sudanese leaders on the sidelines of the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York.

But time is running short. Preparations for the popular plebiscite have barely begun. Mr. Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and South Sudan’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) are barely on speaking terms and need constant mediation, according to those familiar with the current talks.

The CPA has failed to live up to its name since its beginning, say many.

“The CPA has been implemented in a way that has inhibited the resolution of many of the real differences,” says Douglas Johnson, a Sudan scholar and historian of the South Sudanese people. “These are all things which could have been resolved very early, so to have no resolution to these issues at this point shows a deliberate attempt to sabotage that part of the CPA.”

The commission charged with organizing the referendum on whether the South can secede was set up months late and has been deadlocked by divisions. An initial voter roll was required to be complete by the end of August, but registration has not begun – nor will it be easy to do once it finally gets under way.

South Sudan is the size of France, but lacks any paved roads outside its three main towns. The rainy season in the south drags on until October, blocking easy access to the mostly rural population.

But delaying the vote is not an option, South Sudan’s SPLM has consistently warned. When NCP officials recently hinted that no vote could take place without a fully demarcated north-south border, the reaction was strong and swift.

“We wanted the borders demarcated five years ago,” said SPLM secretary-general Pagan Amum. “Who delayed the process? The National Congress [Party].”

“Now they want to use the delaying that they have caused to destroy the future of our people,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”

“To us, the timing of the referendum is sacrosanct,” South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, said in Washington last week. He warned of “a return to violence on a massive scale” if the vote did not go forward on time.

Even if the referendum’s obstacles are overcome peacefully, a host of other delicate issues must be resolved if the South is to secede smoothly. The biggest of these – by far – is oil.

South Sudan holds 80 percent of the country’s crude reserves, but the only export pipeline out of the landlocked region runs through Sudan’s north.

Reasons for hope

Currently, the two sides split the southern oil revenue, but that deal ends in July 2011. Neither side can afford to lose the lifeline funds, which make up 98 percent of South Sudan’s current budget.

The two sides did not even begin discussing the postsecession scenarios until last month, and no progress has yet been reported.

But not all signs point to a looming conflict.

Khartoum wants to normalize relations with the Western world and end the US sanctions against Sudan.

The UN is supporting the referendum preparations and monitoring the vote, giving the vote momentum.

And Sudan’s mishap-ridden April general elections proved that the referendum doesn't have to be perfect if the country’s political elites can agree to strike a deal.

The CPA’s two parties hold a consistent five-year record of “muddling through” each crisis.

And oil – while a cause of tension – gives both sides an incentive to keep a lid on instability in the crude-rich border areas.

The government in Khartoum, which faces a continued rebellion in Darfur and lingering discontent elsewhere, cannot afford a full-blown war.

The obstacles are not insurmountable, says Johnson, who thinks the international community that helped broker the peace deal should now step in to help save it.

But the current level of engagement has fallen fall short, he says. “There needs to be a new consensus within the international community as to what should be done,” he says.

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