NAIROBI, Kenya — On Friday U.S. President Barack Obama will press to keep Sudan's crucial referendum on track and prevent Africa's largest country from returning to civil war.
Obama will make a concerted but diplomatic push at the United Nations meeting on Sudan amid rising fears that war once again looms in a strategic oil-rich state that sits on the continent's Muslim-Christian divide.
Sudan has been more often at war than at peace for half a century. The most recent round of north-south civil conflict lasted 22 years and killed an estimated 2 million people, mostly from starvation and illness.
The 2005 peace deal ended the war between the northern Islamist government in Khartoum and the mostly Christian southern rebels, although fresh fighting erupted in the western region of Darfur.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, brokered by the United States and others, was one of the few unquestionable foreign policy successes of the Bush administration. And now Obama does not want to preside over its unravelling. This concern has spurred U.S. policymakers in recent days.
As prescribed in the peace agreement, Sudan held national elections in April and a referendum on independence for the south is scheduled for January. Also to be decided is whether the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei will lie north or south of the 1,300-mile border.
But the referendum, and therefore the tenuous five-year peace, is threatened by a combination of poor preparation and apparent finagling by the Khartoum government, according to diplomats in Sudan.
In the New York meeting — to be hosted by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and attended by Sudanese, African Union and World Bank officials, as well as representatives of other interested nations — Obama is expected to take a tough line insisting that the referendum must go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 9.
The meeting “gives the opportunity for the international community to stand together again and send a very forceful message at a critical make-or-break time,” said Samantha Power, a special assistant to the president on multilateral affairs, in a conference call with reporters this week.
“The No. 1 message is that these referenda must go off on time, that they must be peaceful and they must reflect the will of the people of South Sudan,” she said.
Critics have accused the Obama administraton of ignoring the Sudan issue for too long. But the president is now beginning to apply concetrated pressure for the referendum at what officials say is a decisive moment.
This month Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, offered Khartoum a package of incentives including debt relief, the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the removal of Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terror if President Omar Al Bashir allows the January referendum to go ahead peacefully.
Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur, rejected the incentives. “We are not interested in charity,” a government spokesman said.
Gration, who this month made his 20th trip to Sudan since being appointed, has been joined by Princeton Lyman, a former ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, as part of his negotiating team. Supporters of the move say Lyman’s appointment bolsters the U.S. diplomatic team but critics say it further muddies the water as to who really speaks for Washington.
The rhetoric on Sudan, like the diplomacy, is being ramped up. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Sudan as, “a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence,” when speaking at Washington’s Council on Foreign Relations think tank this month.
Like many regional analysts and southern Sudanese people, Clinton sees a vote for independence as “inevitable” but acknowledges that it will be “a very hard decision for the north to accept.”
Oil is the problem, but may also be the solution. Sudan’s vast oil fields are mostly in the south so the north is against secession while the south is eager for it.
“If you’re in the north and all of a sudden you think a line’s going to be drawn and you’re going to lose 80 percent of the oil revenues, you’re not a very enthusiastic participant,” Clinton said, then asking, "What are the deals that can possibly be made that will limit the potential of violence?”
The issue is not clear cut, however. The ruin of poverty-stricken southern Sudan means it lacks the vital infrastructure to profit from the oil reserves without exporting it via pipelines that run north. The hope is that an agreement to share revenues can be struck that benefits both north and south and makes profit more attractive than war.
“The future of Sudan is hanging in the balance,” said the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, to the influential U.S. Congressional Black Caucus.
Describing the Jan. 9 referendum date as “sacrosanct” Kiir said: “The weight of our history, the depths of our peoples’ suffering and corresponding expectations, the promises of their leaders both in the North and South, and the guarantees of the international community create no space for wavering on this.”