Sudan braces itself for change

International alarm bells are ringing over Sudan as it enters what is expected to be a political rollercoaster of a year, with nationwide elections due in April and a controversial referendum on southern independence planned for January 2011. But Sudanese officials say fears of renewed civil war and a resulting regional conflagration are overblown. As Mark Twain might have said, reports of the death of Sudan have been greatly exaggerated.

A little nervousness is understandable. Memories of the 21-year north-south war that killed two million people are still fresh. The internationally guaranteed comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 by Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), halted the killing. It established a government of national unity and a semi-autonomous government embracing 10 southern states, with its capital in Juba.

But implementation of many CPA provisions has fallen behind schedule. Agreements on borders, debt and revenue-sharing, control of oil and other natural resources, nationality, and future political relations between north and south Sudan, if the latter votes to secede, are incomplete or wholly absent. Sporadic unrest in parts of the south in 2009 left 2 500 people dead and 350 000 homeless. Violence there is currently a bigger problem than in Darfur in the West.

Significant progress has been made, notably on a referendum law, although views differ about whether southerners resident in the north should participate. A voter registration drive, following a national census, has been unexpectedly successful, with 16-million names entered on the electoral rolls out of a total population of about 40-million. Officials maintain voting will go ahead even in past trouble spots such as the oil-rich Abyei region.

Leading aid agencies are voicing misgivings. “Our main concern is that violence may escalate around the time of the elections and the referendum, increasing the potential for instability,” said Maya Mailer, a policy adviser for Oxfam based in Juba and author of a joint briefing paper, Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan. “There’s definitely a risk of civil war if the CPA does not hold.”

Mailer called for an intensified international effort to address southern Sudan’s chronic underlying problems of abject poverty, recurrent food emergencies, lack of development and rudimentary or nonexistent infrastructure that the CPA process since 2005 had failed adequately to address.

Resolution of outstanding north-south disagreements before the referendum, improved protection for civilians, and better humanitarian access were all essential, she said.

“It’s not too late to avoid a crisis,” Mailer said.

“People thought the CPA would be impossible but they managed it. Although things have slipped since 2005, the CPA showed what could be achieved. We also believe that if the CPA is allowed to fail, there will be no solution for Darfur.”

British officials said that Sudan had reached a “critical juncture” and pledged to work with the leaders of north and south to help overcome their differences. “We want the NCP and the SPLM to create an environment that is conducive to holding credible elections,” said Foreign Office minister Glenys Kinnock. “Sudan needs leadership from both parties to … realise a peaceful future for the people of Sudan, both in the period up to referendum and for the years after, regardless of the outcome.”

International development minister Gareth Thomas announced Britain would add £54-million to its existing aid for Sudan in 2010, including £8-million earmarked to support the elections. British assistance to Sudan, channelled through NGOs and the UN, will total £330-million between 2008 and 2011. Thomas said British efforts would be coordinated with the EU, which may send an election monitoring mission. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the coming year.

Omer Siddig, Sudan’s ambassador to Britain, said he welcomed the support offered by Britain and other CPA guarantor countries. Although key issues remained outstanding, he said both the April elections, comprising presidential, parliamentary and regional polls, and the 2011 referendum would go ahead on schedule. The referendum law had been passed by parliament, he added, and reforms such as a new 25% quota for female members of the national assembly had been agreed.

“No one can tell what will be the result of the referendum. Talk about a new war is exaggerated,” Siddig said. “As Sudanese we are capable of solving our problems ourselves as we have before. We hope that wisdom will prevail. Everybody hopes the south will stay.” –

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Simon Tisdall
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