Looking Beyond Sudan's Perilous Vote

By Zach Vertin

NAIROBI, Kenya - U.S. President Barack Obama, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and movie star George Clooney have all, in recent weeks, called the world's attention to Sudan and the need for a peaceful vote to decide whether South Sudan can be independent.

As Sudan's fragile peace agreement between North and South enters its final phase before the contentious referendum on southern self-determination in January, the international community has trained its attention on expediting preparations for the vote and ensuring compliance with its result.

But if international partners hope to underwrite a lasting peace, their belated sense of urgency must also be channeled beyond January, toward bolstering stalled talks on a constructive post-referendum relationship between North and South.

Backed by a broad coalition of international guarantors, Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended two decades of war that claimed more than 2 million lives. The textbook-thick agreement bound the war's primary protagonists - Khartoum's National Congress Party and the South-based Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement - to a host of tasks aimed at consolidating the peace and making unity attractive over the ensuing six years.

The peace agreement balanced the latter objective by guaranteeing the people of South Sudan a referendum in January 2011 to choose whether to remain united or to secede.

As the parties - the NCP in particular - have done little to foster an environment in which unity might prevail, the majority of Southerners are primed to cast their vote for separation.

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Now, less than 100 days remain until the vote. Preparations are considerably behind schedule, and some - though not all - camps within the NCP are working to delay or deny the referendum altogether. Thus, much of the hype surrounding the Obama-headlined U.N. meeting focused on preparations for the January exercise.

However, less attention was drawn to the communique's reference to the North-South negotiations on post-referendum arrangements. Pursuing the broader goal of stimulating these stalled talks is not only critical for securing a peaceful transition, but may also serve the more immediate objective of clearing the path for a timely, credible and mutually accepted referendum.

The post-CPA relationship between Sudan's North and semi-autonomous South must be mapped regardless of whether the country remains one or (more likely) becomes two. Issues to be negotiated include citizenship and nationality, natural resource management (oil and water), financial and economic issues (assets, debts and currency), and security.

To this end, the parties commenced bilateral talks - aided by African Union facilitation - in July. Six-member negotiating teams from each party are supported by bilateral working groups, who engage concurrently - yet in a somewhat staggered fashion - on each of the agenda items.

Two months on, little progress has been made and the parties appear stuck in a holding pattern. Given the political brinksmanship that has long characterized Sudan's North-South politics, it's conceivable that the parties continue to circle fruitlessly before attempting to strike a grand bargain - or extort major concessions - at the 11th hour.

Such high-stakes gambling should be discouraged. While recognizing that each of the agenda items are legally, practically and politically intertwined, international partners should instead encourage incremental progress - through some degree of sequencing - in the talks. In-principle agreement on one post-referendum issue could unlock more options on another, and increase the chances for a comprehensive package on future arrangements.

For example, hundreds of thousands of southerners who were displaced during the war now live, work and raise families in the North - particularly in and around Khartoum. Similarly, many northern populations desire continued access to the South - most notably pastoralist communities who spend a considerable portion of their year, sometimes six months or more of dry season, grazing cattle in the South.

If the parties were to endorse principles of dual citizenship or liberal movement and residence rights, potential options for future economic activity, border management and security provisions might come into sharper focus.

Agreed citizenship principles, if well-communicated, might simultaneously serve to minimize anxiety among those who fear partition could ultimately result in a hardening of the otherwise permeable North-South boundary.

As the referendum is sure to shock Sudan's political system, the parties should be pressed to make as much headway as possible now, but also to ensure that a mechanism is firmly in place so that negotiations can continue beyond January - up to (and possibly beyond) July 2011 - the date on which both the peace agreement expires and the South would theoretically attain independence.

In an ideal world, the parties would agree all such arrangements prior to the referendum. But with time short and preparations for the vote itself dominating the political arena, this is unlikely. The additional six months may thus be critical to build upon foundational agreements already negotiated, and ensure a smooth transition to the post-CPA era.

Some in the NCP are focused less on thwarting the process and more on securing a favorable package of post-referendum arrangements. Progress now toward a series of win-win post-referendum arrangements could remove obstacles to the referendum itself and temper the potential impact of its result.

Securing the referendum is priority number 1, but neglecting the groundwork toward positive post-referendum relations is a short-sighted recipe for renewed conflict.

Zach Vertin is a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group.

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