Voting in Sudan on southern Sudan’s independence referendum began on Sunday, and there have already been some armed clashes and a couple dozen people killed in skirmishing. The oil-rich enclave of Abyei had its voting on its status delayed indefinitely because of disagreements about voter eligibility. As this CSIS report by Richard Downie explains, the resolution of Abyei’s status is will be important for preventing renewed fighting along the new border. The outcome of the referendum will most likely be a vote in favor of independence, and the government in Khartoum publicly claims that it will respect that result. Howevere, the referendum would be just the beginning. As Maggie Fick explains:
So while its people are celebrating, Southern Sudan’s leaders are eager to get back to the negotiating table with Khartoum, where a long agenda awaits after the voting finishes. If international attention wanes after the votes are cast, those negotiations could easily take a turn for the worse.
There will not be much time for those negotiations to proceed. Fick continues:
The African Union-brokered negotiations between the ruling party in Khartoum and the governing party in the south — now on hold while the voting takes place — have to be completed by the summer. The 2005 north-south peace agreement governing the referendum calls for an “interim period” between the voting and secession, to expire on July 9, 2011. This is also the date the south will declare independence if the referendum passes.
The problems to be worked out between now and July are considerable:
That leaves just a few months for some of the most contentious issues in Sudan’s recent history to be resolved. The parties will have to decide who becomes a citizen, a tricky question since tens of thousands of southerners now live in the north. A security arrangement along the border will have to be worked out — as will the actual border demarcation itself. It’s also not clear yet how north and south Sudan will share oil wealth, much of which will be concentrated in the new independent state. But perhaps most controversial of all is the status of Abyei, which lies along the disputed border. Oil rich, ethnically diverse, and politically explosive, Abyei was supposed to hold its own referendum this week over whether to be in Sudan or the new Southern Sudanese state. Disputes over who would be able to vote, however, have delayed the polls. Clashes have broken out there in recent days between settler and nomad populations, the former preferring to go with the south and the latter favoring the north. The situation on the ground on Monday was reportedly calm, but any further flaring of violence in the area is likely to raise tensions between Khartoum and Juba over an issue on which neither side wants to cede ground.
Supposing that all of these hurdles are overcome, this will lead to the creation of a large state that will have all of the problems of a failed state and petro-state and few advantages. Southern Sudan has also become a target of the displaced Lord’s Resistance Army, and there are suspicions that the LRA could be operating as Khartoum’s proxy. Even if that is not the case, the LRA’s attacks underscore the severe weaknesses of any new state in southern Sudan. The default U.S. policy towards all of this seems to be full backing for a ramshackle South Sudan, but it is far from clear that this aids regional stability or peace, to say nothing of whether it is an appropriate use of U.S. resources.