afrol News / Africa Renewal, 10 December - With Sudan moving towards a referendum to determine whether the south remains part of the country or secedes, the international community has launched a major diplomatic push to keep the troubled process on track.
The referendum in southern Sudan, together with a separate poll on the status of the disputed oil centre of Abyei, is scheduled for 9 January 2011, in less than one month.
The votes are the centrepiece of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM) that ended more than two decades of civil war in the south. More than 2 million people died during the conflict and some 4.6 million were driven from their homes.
Granting the southern Sudanese the right to self-determination was an extraordinary provision on a continent where colonial-era borders are considered untouchable. The complex accord also established an interim national unity government, including a regional government in southern Sudan headed by the SPLM.
In addition, the accord set a formula for revenue sharing between north and south, allowed residents of the border town of Abyei to choose whether to affiliate with north or south, created a local power sharing formula in two violence-stricken border states and established lasting ceasefire and security arrangements.
"A ticking time bomb"
The 2005 peace agreement envisioned that implementation of the plan would "make unity attractive" to southerners and perhaps persuade them to stay part of Sudan. But after nearly six years and the presence of more than 30,000 peacekeeping troops in two separate missions - in southern Sudan and Darfur - tensions remain high and the prospects for unity have grown dimmer.
Most observers now expect that the southern Sudanese will vote for independence, and are uncertain about the Khartoum government's response. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as "a ticking time bomb" in September.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned world leaders in New York that delays in preparations for the south Sudanese and Abyei polls were jeopardising the scheduled date of 9 January. "The Sudanese people cannot afford a resumption of conflict," he said. "The stakes are high, for Sudan, for Africa, for the international community."
Since then there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity, includ
UN training police forces in the remote southern Sudanese town Torit
ing establishment of a UN panel to monitor preparations for the referenda headed by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. The UN Security Council sent a mission to Sudan headed by US Ambassador Susan Rice, and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired a high-level Security Council meeting on Sudan in November.
Signs of progress
Africa has also ramped up its diplomacy. In mid-November, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the head of an African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, announced a "framework agreement" by the parties to resolve an array of post-referendum issues that are contributing to the tensions. These include the demarcation of borders, citizenship and civil rights issues, the resolution of longstanding ethnic, land and political disputes in Abyei and, most critically, a formula for revenue sharing in the event of southern independence.
About 80 percent of the petroleum reserves in Sudan, Africa's third largest producer, are located in the south, and agreement on the allocation of oil revenue is considered vital to the success of the referendum and to future north-south relations.
Speakers at the November UN Security Council meeting welcomed the launch of voter registration in South Sudan and noted that senior officials from both sides had affirmed their commitment to peacefully resolve remaining problems and respect the will of the voters.
But such signs of progress were tempered by reminders of the remaining challenges. The continuing conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur is chief among them, as is the threat of violence over the continuing political deadlock over Abyei.
The UN Security Council is considering increasing the number of peacekeepers with the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in the south during the voting and UN humanitarian officials are seeking US$ 63 million to stockpile relief supplies in the event of civil unrest.
"The coming months are likely to be difficult for the people of Sudan," Mr Ban told the UN Security Council. "The government of Sudan, the government of southern Sudan and the referenda commissions must rise to this challenge," he added.
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