A referendum to decide the fate of an oil-rich province of Sudan is unlikely to be held on time as northerners and southerners remain locked in an impasse over issues that include voting rights, demarcation of borders and oil revenue.
As mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, two referenda are to be held on Jan. 9 — one to determine whether the south will secede and the other to decide whether the people of Abyei want to go with it.
U.S. and Sudanese officials have begun lowering expectations that the Abyei vote will be held on time.
Representatives of the governments of northern and southern Sudan on Tuesday blamed each other for the deadlock.
Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of mission at the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) Mission to the U.S., acknowledged that it is now clear that no progress is being made on resolving differences over Abyei.
Mr. Gatkuoth accused northern leaders of holding the province hostage.
“But the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] is committed to a breakthrough, even if we have to pay a ransom,” Mr. Gatkuoth said at a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The SPLM is the largest political party in the south.
Under the terms of the CPA, the referendum can be delayed if both parties are in agreement.
The Obama administration has offered to take Sudan off a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July 2011 if Kharoutm holds a credible and on-time referendum on southern independence and implements all post-referendum agreements.
Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese embassy, said the international community should be encouraged by the fact that despite logistical difficulties, “we have somehow been able to overcome a great deal.”
“It is important that the entire process leading up to the referendum is carried out credibly,” he said, adding that the bitter political atmosphere poses the biggest challenge.
Hundreds of southerners living in the north have been crossing over into the south, mostly driven by fear of reprisals once the south secedes, as is widely expected.
Southern Sudanese are returning in big numbers because of fear, Mr. Gatkuoth said.
Jon Temin, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said a return to the north-south conflict is unlikely.