JUBA, Sudan — While celebrations marked the inauguration of Sudan president Omar al-Bashir to another term of office in Khartoum, the mood was more somber and determined in southern Sudan. The people of southern Sudan are looking ahead to the referendum in January 2011 when they will vote to determine if the south can secede to become an independent country.

If all goes according to plan, African’s largest country will be well on its way to “divorce” by this time next year.

But before the referendum — viewed as the real “end game” for the South — can take place, the two parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) must wrap up the electoral process and forge ahead into a gauntlet of negotiations over the future of Sudan, regardless of whether it remains one country or becomes two separate nations.

The elections took more than two years and cost hundreds of millions of donor dollars to pull off. Significant diplomatic capital has been expended in hemming and hawing over the international community’s response to elections that returned an indicted war criminal to power.

The “check the box” mentality toward the elections was the tacit approach of many international actors, including the Obama administration. This conflict prevention-focused strategy suggested that the elections were necessary to keep the peace agreement on track, because a breakdown of this agreement would almost certainly spark a return to all-out North-South war.

There’s arguably a serious discussion needed about the merits, disadvantages, and long-term consequences of significantly lowering the credibility bar of Sudan’s elections in order to clear yet another CPA hurdle.

Now that the new governments have been formed in Khartoum and here in Juba, the southern capital, Sudan's two ruling parties and the international actors with a stake in the future of the country have shifted their attention to the unpredictable period ahead.

In the seven-month run-up to the South’s referendum on independence in January, the National Congress Party-led regime in Khartoum and the guerrillas-turned-politicians of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement will need to engage in more of the deal-making and elite bargaining that characterized the recent political dramas in Sudan prior to the elections. A myriad number of hot-button issues — from the sharing of oil-revenues following the referendum to the demarcation of the North-South border — must be resolved before southerners return to the polls in January.

Before the elections are shelved and forgotten, it’s worth considering the lessons that all parties could learn from the process, given that it in the South, it was in some ways a “dry run” for the referendum.

A senior SPLM official noted in a press conference during the polls that “the elections are a very good and important lesson for us [the SPLM].” The official then explained how she feels that the supposedly neutral National Electoral Commission is guilty of “negligence” and that many of the technical difficulties witnessed during the polling period could have been corrected earlier “if they had really cared.”

It is a positive sign that the SPLM seems to be wising up to the fact that their “peace partner” in Khartoum will likely attempt a repeat performance of the rigging, gerrymandering and political repression that has characterized the lengthy electoral process. But this realization is not a guarantee that either party will opt out of political hijinx if they see it as necessary to create their desired outcome.

The southern referendum will be considerably less complex than the elections. Instead of casting their vote on 12 ballots, southerners will be making just one decision: for “unity” or “separation” of Sudan. Although the referendum is less technically challenging, the stakes of this looming vote are undeniably higher not only for southerners, but for Sudan’s neighbors and for the international community writ large; the birth of a new nation is never a simple affair, and a new state in the volatile Horn of Africa region poses challenges no matter how peaceful the process.

The international community, particularly the United Nations Mission in Sudan, initially had grand plans for rapid response capabilities and contingency planning to mitigate instability around the elections. Some, but by no means all, of these initiatives materialized.

While the Sudanese people deserve credit for showing their desire to embrace democratic and peaceful political processes, it would be unrealistic to assume that the referendum will come off peacefully if any of the “technical difficulties” of the elections occur during the referendum and thus prevent southerners from participating in their vote on independence.

With so little time before the Sudanese return to the polls, now is not the time for the international community to cool its rhetorical heels. Preparation, coordination, and conditional pressures from actors such as the Obama administration and the African Union are needed to help Sudan lay the groundwork for a peaceful and credible referendum next year.

Maggie Fick is based in Juba, Sudan, as a field researcher for the Enough Project.


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