Under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Sudan will hold a referendum on Southern independence in January 2011. The administration of President Omar al-Bashir has occasionally suggested that it might delay or otherwise change these plans, but on the whole it appeared during the past five years that momentum was with those who wanted to conduct the referendum rather than against them. In the last few weeks, however, a host of voices from North and South Sudan have said it might not be possible or desirable to hold the referendum in January.
The escalation of doubt about the referendum’s prospects contrasts with the public professions of amicability that reigned earlier this summer. As recently as July 11, Southern Sudanese officials said after meeting with their Northern counterparts that pre-referendum talks looked like a “peaceful divorce.” But in late July, the ruling party appeared ready to contest who got what in the divorce, saying that the referendum should wait until border disputes found a resolution. Talks between North and South started to stall.
Fears and threats of violence underlie verbal disagreements about the referendum. Politicians on both sides of the issue (and the border) have warned that a premature referendum could lead to violence, or that a delayed referendum could lead to violence (damned either way?). Meanwhile, the tensions themselves could engender violence, particularly in the disputed border regions.
In the first half of this month, a confusing cacophony of pronouncements have sounded concerning the referendum’s viability. Southern leaders say the referendum will go forward, but then say it is being “derailed” by Northern interests, while the referendum commission calls for a delay. The North and South are meeting about the referendum, but critics say the referendum commission must act quickly to prevent potentially fatal problems.
NPR summed up the situation on Sunday:
A northern Sudan party official said Saturday the commission organizing the crucial southern independence referendum has requested the vote be delayed on technical grounds, while the chief negotiator for the south insisted that is not an option.
The chief negotiator for Southern Sudan on the upcoming independence referendum, meanwhile, said Saturday that postponement of the vote is not an option despite calls from the referendum commission. He said that his party would pursue “other options” instead of accepting a delay.
Pagan Amum, Secretary General of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, said in an interview that his party would continue to engage the north to overcome obstacles to the scheduled Jan. 9 vote.
But Amum said that if the referendum “process is obstructed, (there) will not be postponement.”
Instead, he said the SPLM would “look for other mechanisms than the referendum,” and he cited a provision in the internationally brokered 2005 accord that ended decades of north-south civil war that killed more than 2 million people and called for the southern referendum.
Tensions are rising over the stalled preparations for the southern vote, and the SPLM has suggested that the northern government is deliberately delaying the process to negatively impact or even derail the referendum.
The first official round of negotiations between the north and south on post-referendum arrangements took place in Khartoum over the last week.
Amum told reporters in the southern capital on Friday that talks on issues such as wealth sharing are set to resume after one week.
With logistical problems and political disagreements accumulating, the referendum looks to be in some jeopardy, though one could still say that the momentum is with the vote. If talks break down and the government postpones the referendum, tensions could escalate into open war. The US, after its relatively high profile in 2009 and 2010 on Sudan matters, appears conspicuously absent at this stage. But the deliberations over the referendum represent a crucial juncture for Sudan, and the decisions the referendum’s architects and key participants take now will have major ramifications for the future of North and South Sudan.