At least the ballot looks easy enough: one hand for Southern Sudan’s independence, two hands for unity with the north and regime in Khartoum. Yet Sudan’s upcoming referendum- now less than a month away – is anything but. The United States and international community are pressuring Khartoum to live up to the conditions set forth in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan, pulling out all the diplomatic stops to ensure a peaceful vote. Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, and an endless stream of celebrities have made sure the media light – and therefore world opinion – is focused heavily on President Omar al-Bashir’s regime and Sudan. Yet when considering the sustainability of a peaceful and prosperous future, the emphasis on the referendum could be a double edged sword. A successful vote is the precipice, but the substance of peace will occur during full implementation of the results in the following months. If the international community only maintains interest long enough to engage in crisis management, what will hopefully be achieved on January 9th shall be short-lived.
The concern over an outbreak of violence is real and palpable. The January 9th referendum is the culmination of the internationally brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Africa’s longest running civil war between the Arabized north and non-Arab south. Implementation of the CPA has been fraught with delays and diversions. Heightening tensions, voter registration that ended on December 8th had been extended by South Sudan’s Referendum Commission, and the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel under former President Thabo Mbeki has been unable to mediate agreements on key post-referendum issues. While expected, the confirmation yesterday that a referendum would not be held in the oil-rich region of Abyei only highlights the difficulties ahead. Even if rigorous diplomacy pays off and the Khartoum abides by what is likely to be Southern independence, there are rogue local actors who may be less inclined to do so.
Yet scratching through the muck on the surface, there seems to be some relatively promising signs. If Khartoum has been consistent on anything, it is speaking the language of shrewd self-interest. Many experts agree that the calculus is in favor of peace. The north is already dealing with military obligations in the east and Darfur and eyes a militarized Government of Southern Sudan warily. Further, Khartoum no longer has the undivided support of their close friend China to stave off international pressure. While China buys 64% of Sudan’s oil, it composes only 6% of their oil imports. China has veered from its usual obstructionist tendencies, throwing in their dice by heavily investing in Southern Sudan’s infrastructure. Also, while criticized by the humanitarian community for offering too many carrots to a genocidal regime, President Obama’s Sudan strategy has proven lucrative. Besides removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL) that would lessen obstacles to foreign investment (although there was skepticism Congress would make this a reality), incentives include relief of Sudan’s $30 billion in debt, lifting of sanctions, and international support in securing revenue sharing from oil, 80% of which lies in the South. With less than 3 miles of paved road, the South does not have the groundwork to export the oil, and therefore will need to build a constructive relationship with the North to access their pipeline infrastructure. There are also promising developments in democratization. Popular consultation in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile could set a precedent for participation in the political process at the local level.
The wide ranging actions on the part of the international community are crucial in slowly edging Sudan in the direction of a climate that favors peace. Vigorous engagement on all levels has ironed out potential bumps in the road: the United Nations Missions in Sudan (UNMIS) is providing significant logistical and technical support, hundreds of non-profits are performing trainings and raising awareness on how to avoid violence, and regional leaders are facilitating important agreements in preparation. Many hope what has been seen as a relatively successful registration process will precede a peaceful and credible vote.
While ultimately a positive direction for Southern Sudan must be charted by Sudanese, it will still require the international community to ensure favorable conditions even after the referendum. The major policy changes in both the north and south will happen over a six month period, and many questions over citizenship, border demarcation, Abyei, and security have yet to be answered and will continue to pose challenges after January. There will have to be investment in local capacity and access to reliable information. To ensure that neither side reneges on the results at any point, the international community will have to sustain high levels of engagement at multiple levels. President Omar al-Bashir has already demonstrated in Darfur the atrocities he will commit when there is no fear of repercussions. Portions of the classified strategy released by the Obama administration seem to indicate a clear understanding of this; concessions and benchmarks are based on full implementation of the CPA and future action in Darfur.
The focus on preventing violence during the referendum on the 11th hour is of utmost importance, but not the end game. While the situation remains fragile and future undetermined, there are glimpses of what the international community can accomplish in partnership with local actors to overcome Sudan’s tragic history. If the Southern Sudanese have the opportunity to build their future, it must not be forgotten that it’s the next steps when international attention and support can make the sustainable difference.