South Sudan independence vote at risk

Young activists in Sudan, where political dissent is rarely tolerated, seize on a small opening before April's elections to educate voters.
By Rebecca Hamilton
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 11:17 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan - A referendum on whether oil-rich southern Sudan breaks away to become Africa's newest nation is scheduled to take place in less than four months. But with negotiations between north and south stalled over border demarcation, and preparations for the vote lagging perilously behind, the likelihood of the referendum proceeding as planned appears slim.

Analysts fear that any delay could trigger a return to the decades-long civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people, primarily southerners.

Sudan's Islamist government, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, appears reluctant to let go of oil fields that have helped it survive U.S. economic sanctions first imposed in the 1990s after Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terrorism. The loss of territory in resource-rich southern Sudan would have grave economic consequences for the north, analysts say.

According to Fouad Hikmat, the International Crisis Group's special adviser on Sudan, the government says the referendum cannot take place until agreements are reached on issues related to its economic future.

"If these negotiations fail for whatever reasons, the referendum will be in jeopardy," Hikmat said.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration boosted its efforts to mitigate the looming crisis, dispatching veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman to join U.S. special envoy Scott Gration in Sudan.

The U.S. government has long been committed to the right of self-determination for the predominantly animist and Christian population of southern Sudan.

In 2001, pushed by an advocacy coalition led by U.S. evangelical and African-American churches, former President George W. Bush made bringing peace to the region a foreign policy priority. His administration helped secure a 2005 peace agreement, which established a power-sharing government that was supposed to lead Sudan from dictatorship to democracy. After a six-year interim period of semi-autonomous-rule, the south was to vote in 2011 on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede.

But with international attention on a separate crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, and relations between north and south marked by mistrust, the benchmarks set out in the agreement fell behind schedule. In April, a national election that had been delayed twice, and that most opposition parties boycotted, handed Bashir -- who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court - an electoral victory.

The ruling National Congress Party now says the referendum cannot take place until the border has been demarcated. But members of an 18-person Technical Border Committee representing both sides have been unable to reach a final agreement on the boundary.

Battle over resources

Stretching from the Central African Republic in the west to Ethiopia in the east, the 1,200-mile border region between north and south is among the most resource-rich and ethnically diverse areas of Sudan. Predominantly Arab pastoralists from north of the border who journey southward each year to graze their livestock fear that demarcation will prevent their seasonal movement.

The border committee has agreed on about 80 percent of the border, the Sudanese minister of cabinet affairs, Luka Biong, said in an interview in Khartoum. But the parties have reached an impasse regarding five areas where the majority of Sudan's oil wealth lies, he said.

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