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Africa

Sudan's path to referendum fraught with obstacles

North and south Sudanese leaders have begun talks on a strategy for a peaceful transition should a 2011 referendum result in the south gaining its independence. But experts say time is running out to clarify all points.

Person carrying Sudanese flag

Sudan is currently united under one flag. But for how long?

In six months time, Sudan will vote in an historic referendum on whether the war-scarred south will gain independence. But leaders from the north and south have a substantial number of details to clarify before the January 2011 vote.

"There's a huge area to cover, but politicians on both sides realize that whatever happens at the referendum, they're going to have to work out how the relationship is going to be framed in the future," said Roger Middleton, a researcher in the African Program of London-based think tank Chatham House.

Talks to continue

Talks between President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) and the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) kicked off in Khartoum last weekend and were due to continue on July 19. The negotiations are focusing on how to ensure a peaceful transition after the referendum, in which the south is expected to vote in favor of self-rule.

Omar al-Bashir casting his vote

Omar al-Bashir voted in the election, which observers called 'chaotic'

The referendum is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in January 2005 between the NCP and SPLM, which ended decades of civil war in Sudan. According to Middleton, the parties are aware of the difficult task they face.

"They know the costs of going back to war are huge - for both sides," he told Deutsche Welle. "There's a huge codependency they have on peace."

But Elke Grawert, a political scientist and Sudan expert at the University of Bremen, said it was unlikely that all points of discussion will be fully clarified in time.

"I think they will make some progress in resolving the issues, but it is imperative that the parties aim for a post-referendum process in which further negotiations take place," Grawert told Deutsche Welle.

Oil is the crux

Four key issues are on the agenda for the talks over the next months: sharing oil resources, citizenship, security and respect of international agreements. But observers agree that the pivotal point will be oil, as it plays a major role in Sudan's economy. In addition to the referendum on southern independence, the oil-rich Abyei region will also vote in January on which side to join.

According to the International Monetary Fund, oil now accounts for about 95 percent of Sudan's exports and over half of all government revenue. Most oil reserves are located in southern Sudan, but the region is totally dependent on northern pipelines to funnel its crude to the Red Sea. An agreement to share oil revenues was a key aspect of the CPA. However, how these revenues should be split in the future poses a particular challenge after the referendum, said Amy Barry from the non-governmental organization Global Witness.

Southern Sudanese waving flags and celebrating the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement

When the peace accord was signed in 2005, many Sudanese rejoiced.

"It's a real catch-22 situation," Barry said. "If the south, which is landlocked, decides on independence at the referendum, which it is expected to do, it will be almost entirely dependent on the north in order to export its oil. So how are they going to ensure a fair and transparent oil deal post-January 2011?"

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Barry said preparations for a new deal have been "very inadequate." But more transparency was necessary in order to enable peace to last in a post-referendum situation. Grawert agreed that the handling of the oil resources required precise contracts.

"The course needs to be set for economic and political cooperation between both parts of the country, as they already now are economically linked," said Grawert, who heads the international research project "Governance and Social Action in Sudan after the Peace Agreement of January 2005" with partners from universities in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The CPA expires six months after the referendum. All interim agreements will run out at that time.

International pressure

There are other key issues that need to be dealt with. Grawert pointed out that the future border between north and south left many questions open.

"What does that mean for nomadic tribes that are used to wandering between northern and southern Sudan, in particular cattle breeders?" she said. "And what about citizenship issues?"

Overall, Sudan is "alarmingly unprepared" for the critical referendum, according to a report by a global coalition of 26 humanitarian and human rights organizations published this week. Inadequate preparation was harming the chance of a credible vote on January 9, 2011.

Role of the African Union

"The clock is ticking fast towards what might be the most important date in modern Sudanese history," the report "Renewing the Pledge: Re-engaging the Guarantors to the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement" said. The CPA's guarantors include the African Union (AU), European Union, United Nations and the United States.

Barry from Global Witness, which is part of this global coalition, said African leaders in particular had a key role to play in ensuring transparency. The AU will be holding its annual summit in Uganda beginning Monday.

"It's a political signal that could be very usefully sent from the African summit in Uganda," Barry said. "The joint coalition report calls for them to reaffirm their support for the right of the southern Sudanese to self-determination. They should pledge to recognize the outcome of a free and fair referendum."

Officials mark the opening of an oil well in Sudan

Oil will be a pivotal point in Sudenese talks

Middleton from Chatham House said it was in the interest of the AU to observe developments. But how much the body needed to be involved would depend not so much on the actual agreements that are reached, but on the "feeling" between the two sides.

"I think if agreements are reached in an openness and generousness between north and south, that makes for a much more positive relationship going forward," Middleton said. "If agreements are done grudgingly, the international community is going to want to be there to put more pressure on the two states to avoid situations which might revert to war."

Transparency will be crucial

Elections held in Sudan in April of this year were viewed as a test run for the upcoming referendum. The Carter Center, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, monitored the process. It concluded that the vote - which declared President al-Bashir the winner - was "chaotic, non-transparent and vulnerable to electoral manipulation."

Should such lack of transparency also be observed at the January referendum, it could have disastrous consequences for the country, said Alfred Lokuji, an expert of the peace process based in southern Sudan.

"Northern Sudan can ignore a vote for secession and claim that it was all rigged and if it's a vote for unity, southern Sudan can say it was all rigged," Lokuji told Deutsche Welle. "Whatever you do, you run into risks unless it's well organized and as transparent as it possibly can be made."

Discussions are 'a good sign'

The current talks between the NCP and SPLM are a first step. Middleton said he was "cautiously optimistic" on progress.

"The fact that they're talking is a good sign," he said. "Of course, it's much later than would have been ideal. It would have been great if they'd started these conversations a year ago rather than with months until the referendum. But at least they're doing it."

And it appears they will not be marred by an arrest warrant against President al-Bashir. The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued a second warrant this week on charges of genocide.

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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