The sun was setting at the standard equatorial time of just after 7 pm, and I was bumping along a potholed road with my trusted motorcycle taxi driver. Another day in Juba was beginning to draw to a close. “Do you have any good news from today?” my driver Issa said to me.
This is not the first time in the 11 months that I have known Issa that he has said something to me that has struck me as powerful, insightful, or simply startling in its honesty. He's curious about the status of the high-level political negotiations that will partly dictate the future of Sudan as the south prepares for a referendum on whether it will become an independent nation. He’s worried about insecurity along the north-south border because he heard things were getting tense in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region. He wonders why the Army has deployed more security resources a bridge over the Nile River in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. When he hears something on BBC or from his fellow boda driver friends, he often asks me if I’ve heard the same things.
So it wasn’t unusual for Issa to ask me about the news on that recent evening. Yet something about the way he said it made me realize that I had very little good news to report to him.
Negotiations between the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba are moving forward quietly on some fronts. But the most contentious aspects of these discussions – related to post-referendum wealth-sharing and citizenship rights – aren’t likely to see progress any time soon. Meanwhile, voter registration for the January referendum has yet to begin after delays in appointing a secretary-general for the southern referendum commission. Another commission for a separate Abyei vote – to determine if the region wants to join the south in case it secedes – has not yet been formed due to political deadlock.
I could go on, but these are just a few of the challenges plaguing a peaceful and credible referendum in four months. I have no qualms in saying that it seems likely that one of the two parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is responsible for mounting the bulk of the obstacles currently blocking progress toward holding the two referenda votes. This party has historical, existential, political, and strategic reasons for seeing these votes obstructed. Referring to the political dispute over the north-south border, the latest International Crisis Groups report notes that “strategic motives have…been behind NCP delays past and present” in demarcating this contested border. This is arguably the most contested outstanding element of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement aside from the southern referendum itself.
I hope that the record will show that lack of political will, and good will in general, of one of these two parties has stymied implementation of the peace accord since it was signed in 2005. Moreover, this lack of will could hinder the ability of the Southern Sudanese to exercise their internationally recognized right to determine their political destiny on January 9, 2011.