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SUDAN-U.S.: Referendum May Be Only the Beginning

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jan 6 2011 (IPS) - Amid growing certainty that the much-anticipated weeklong referendum on independence for south Sudan will indeed begin Sunday as scheduled, U.S. officials and independent experts are warning that the situation in both the north and the south is likely to remain very fragile for some time to come.

Voting materials are unloaded from a UN helicopter in Tali Payam, a district inaccessible by road, in Southern Sudan's Central Equatoria State. Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

Voting materials are unloaded from a UN helicopter in Tali Payam, a district inaccessible by road, in Southern Sudan's Central Equatoria State. Credit: UN Photo/Tim McKulka

Ensuring that the referendum’s outcome – almost certain to overwhelmingly favour secession – is respected and that the as-yet-unfulfilled provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) are completed will require continued high-level attention from the international community, according to analysts.

“The plan is absolutely to stay engaged,” Gayle Smith, a Sudan specialist on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, told an audience at the Brookings Institution here Thursday. “There is no expectation that we’re going to dial (our involvement in Sudan) back,” she added, noting that Washington is also committed to mobilise support from other key players.

Analysts are also concerned that the referendum results could stoke renewed tensions and violence in other restive regions, such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Upper Nile regions, that could threaten the north’s integrity.

“The situation in the North is very fragile and needs to be managed very carefully,” according to Hilde Johnson, the former Norwegian development minister who played a critical role in negotiating the CPA and has just published a book on her experience, “Waging Peace in Sudan”.

“If the situation is not managed well, the risk is not only a failed state (in Sudan), but a fragmented state as well,” Johnson, currently deputy executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told the same Brookings audience.

The fact that the referendum, which appeared very much in doubt as recently as one month ago, now looks certain to take place has come as an immense relief to the Obama administration, which greatly intensified its lagging diplomatic efforts behind the process beginning in late August.

The stakes are very high. If the results of the referendum are rejected by Khartoum, the civil war that was halted by the CPA is considered highly likely to resume. Some two million people, the vast majority of them southerners, are believed to have died as a result of that conflict.

Indeed, the south’s government in Juba has spent some 40 percent of its budget on buying arms and building its military capacity, while, in defiance of the CPA’s terms, Khartoum has failed to disarm tribal militias along the border that have historically been aligned with it.

Nonetheless, officials and experts have been encouraged by recent events, particularly the smoother-than-expected voter registration process in advance of the referendum.

And they were pleasantly surprised, if not completely reassured, Tuesday when Sudanese President Omar Hassan al- Bashir travelled to the southern capital of Juba and appeared to accept the inevitability of the south’s independence.

“…I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides,” said Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and genocide in connection with his government’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur that was launched in 2003.

“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,” he added.

Still, distrust of Bashir and his government remains high here, particularly in light of their failure to date to reach agreement with the south’s government, headed by Vice President Salva Kirr Mayardit, on several key provisions of the CPA.

Those include, among others, the fate of the oil-rich region of Abyei along the north-south border, which was also supposed to be decided by a second referendum conducted at the same time as the one that begins Sunday but which was delayed by a presidentially appointed commission last month due to disagreements over whether a members of a nomadic group with close ties to Khartoum would be allowed to vote.

The U.S. and its two partners in the so-called Troika that helped negotiate the CPA – Britain and Norway – have reportedly been pushing both parties hard for an agreement on the Abyei referendum by Sunday, but that deadline appears unlikely to be met, according to U.S. officials.

The fact that the Abyei referendum is not taking place on time was “of significant concern”, Johnson said Tuesday.

The two sides have also failed to conclude an agreement on how the revenues from oil produced in both the north and the south are to be shared if, as seems almost certain, the south becomes independent. The current agreement, under which oil revenues from southern fields are split 50:50, expires in July.

Revenue from Sudan’s oil exports, which have increased six- fold over the past decade, currently accounts for 90 percent of the country’s export earnings and finances nearly all of south Sudan’s budget, excluding foreign aid, and about two- thirds of the national government’s budget.

About 80 percent of the country’s total production, however, comes from southern fields – even more if voters in an Abyei referendum cast their lot with the south.

Nonetheless, despite southern plans to eventually ship its oil through alternate routes, the south will remain dependent on Sudan to get its oil to ports for the foreseeable future. This gives Khartoum substantial leverage in the negotiations over future revenue-sharing, according to Rich Williamson, who served as special envoy on Sudan under the George W. Bush administration.

“Both sides will be greedy,” he said Tuesday, adding that the U.S. and other major international players will likely have to maintain a high level of engagement and pressure to gain an eventual agreement on both revenue-sharing and the other outstanding issues in the six months between the referendum and the formal birth of a new state.

“I want to praise …the level of involvement by the administration and President Obama himself over the last few months,” said Williamson, who has accused the administration in harsh terms for being too solicitous of the Bashir government in the past. “But I think it will get more difficult,”

In November, the administration indicated it would remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next July if the referendum goes smoothly and several other key pending CPA provisions are resolved.

Williamson and other analysts agree that neither side has an interest in re-igniting the civil war, but warn that violent incidents – such as one that triggered the burning of the town of Abyei in May 2008, or deliberate provocations by spoilers – could quickly spiral out of control.

“The United States must be prepared to respond to any eventuality,” Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, a long-time critic of Bashir, who, like Williamson, has been sceptical of Khartoum’s sincerity. He called for “comprehensive contingency planning”, subject to continuous review “throughout the foreseeable future”.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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