Tensions are high in Sudan with less than a month to go before a landmark referendum that will determine whether Southern Sudan will become a new country.
Many fear that a weak international presence for the January 9 vote combined with a build-up of opposing armed forces on the north-south border could result in chaos.
Why a referendum?
The referendum is the result of a process started in 2005 called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (or CPA) which ended 40 years of a civil war between the country’s mostly Muslim, Arab north and Christian, African south.
The north (which wants to remain as a single nation) agreed to let the south vote on whether to split and form its own country.
The international community hailed the 2005 CPA as a great achievement, and had high hopes that a lasting peace would be made.
But the core issues of inequality between north and south have not been addressed. And critics argue that the international community has done little to support the CPA, including not honouring its financial pledges for the referendum process.
What if the south votes for independence?
It is almost certain that the vast majority of South Sudanese will vote for independence from the north. The question is what will happen afterwards.
The main dispute between north and south can be summarised by one word: oil.
The majority of Sudan’s oil is in the south but oil revenues represent a whopping 80% of the central government’s budget, which is in the north.
Furthermore, the north has the pipelines to transport the oil for export. Consequently, both sides will need a deal on sharing the oil revenues if they want genuine peace, much less a viable oil industry.
Another issue is determining the borders. There is currently no agreement on where the border between north and south is located.
A sub-question is the status of Abyei, a region caught between north and south and populated by nomads.
Abyei was due to have its own referendum on January 9 to allow its residents to decide if they want to join an independent South Sudan, or remain part of the north. But due to security fears, this has been postponed.
The uncertainty surrounding the oil and borders means there is growing distrust between the governments of north and south. Border clashes have been frequent over the past few months, with both armies accusing the other of starting them.
Ethnic tensions have also been growing in the north, with rising anger from the Arab northerners towards the 2.5 million African South Sudanese who live there.
Many fear a violent backlash from Northerners if the South chooses independence. This could lead to a mass exodus of Southerners from the north, which the government of South Sudan would be ill equipped to handle.
The south also has its own internal ethnic problems. Land and cattle disputes between tribes are frequent and often leave hundreds of people dead. The South Sudan government has done little to resolve this.
A vote for more of the same?
In the lead up to the January 9 vote, everyone’s attention has been focused on organising the referendum, both in South Sudan and at the international level.
The referendum, however, will not resolve existing problems and will likely exacerbate them as the south will have to rely on its own economy to survive without the north.
These problems include the sharing of oil revenues, high levels of poverty, a lack of infrastructure in the south, and ethnic tensions.
As the date for the referendum approaches, fears are high that the north will either try to rig the outcome or not accept the results based on technicalities if the south votes for independence.
This could lead to one or both sides interpreting it as an end of the peace process and opting for a return to war.
Local leaders have warned the international community that such an outcome is possible if they don’t get more UN troops on the ground, more funding in place and more election observers to monitor the referendum.
Action after war breaks out, they say, is hopeless and a lot more costly.
Even so, the referendum will be a first for Africa. None of the borders of any African country have been changed since their independence from colonial powers during the 20th century.
The independence of South Sudan could potentially open the door for many minorities in Africa’s 53 countries to demand more autonomy or their own country.
For this reason, not just the international community but many African governments will be watching Sudan in January with interest and anxiety.
By Zoe Dugal
Photo – Omar al-Bashir, the president of the Sudanese government in the north