Sudan on the brink

Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:09 PM

THE ODDS are growing that 2011 will begin with some good news from Africa and a diplomatic success for the Obama administration. On Sunday, more than 3 million people in the region of southern Sudan are expected to begin voting in a week-long referendum on whether to secede and form a new state. The outcome of the vote has never been in doubt: The mostly Christian and animist population of the south will choose overwhelmingly to leave a country dominated by the Arab and Muslim north. But for some time it has been unclear whether the referendum would be staged on time and without violence. Thanks to some hard work by the Obama administration, the vote seems likely to go forward.

A focused diplomatic effort by the administration beginning last summer seems to have had a positive effect on Omar al-Bashir, the general who rules Sudan and who has been indicted for war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court. The regime was offered a number of incentives - including steps to lift sanctions and review Sudan's status on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors - in exchange for allowing the south to secede peacefully. In addition, a special envoy, State Department ambassador Princeton Lyman, was dispatched to broker talks between Khartoum and the south on key outstanding issues, which include the demarcation of the border and the division of revenue from Sudan's oil fields, most of which lie in territories expected to join the south.

Much has to be resolved - most pressingly, whether and how to hold a referendum in the Abyei region, the site of much of the oil. Administration hopes that a deal would be struck by Sunday will not be realized, but officials say they are optimistic that all sides will avoid violence while negotiating. Encouragingly, Mr. Bashir visited the southern capital of Juba on Tuesday and repeated recent pledges to accept the results of the referendum and support the new state.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Bashir, who has a long history of breaking his word, will stick to it this time. International observers are worried about provocations by the regime's proxies or a renewed government offensive in the neighboring region of Darfur. Then there are the problems that the new nation of south Sudan will be born with: an 85 percent illiteracy rate; a dearth of schools, health clinics and paved roads; and internal tensions. The state will need massive and long-term international aid and development assistance if it is to survive.

The United States will have to remain deeply involved if Sudan's split is to proceed peacefully. Failure could mean another devastating African war. For now, however, Sudan appears likely to pull off the first big step of the process. That would be a credit to its leaders - and proof that well-coordinated U.S. diplomacy can still get results.

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