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.
However, Mr. Gatkuoth and Mr. Mohamed played down concerns that Sudan will, following the vote, return to a civil war similar to the two decades of fighting it recently endured.
Jon Temin, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said a return to the north-south conflict is unlikely.
More than 60 percent of the eligible voters have been registered. However, several lawsuits have been filed challenging the process.
Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the complaints are perceived by some as preparing the groundwork for President Omar Bashir’s National Congress Party to challenge the results of the referendum.
Mr. Gatkuoth expressed confidence that on Jan. 9 southern Sudanese will vote on their future.
“Sudan has failed to stay together. The only thing we need to do now is to make sure we have a peaceful divorce,” he said.
“There is no need to request a delay because we are finished with the hardest part,” the southern Sudanese representative said, referring to the voter registration.
But Western officials and analysts say the biggest challenge has yet to come.
“There are very high expectations among the southern population about tangible improvements in life that are going to happen after the referendum and after presumed independence. Those expectations are going to be almost impossible for the southern leadership and the GOSS to meet,” said Mr. Temin.
A Western official based in Sudan, speaking on the condition of anonymity citing the delicate stage of the process, said in a phone interview with The Washington Times that a key test for the southern Sudanese leadership will be whether they can live up to the high expectations.
The Western official said there is a “huge drop in capabilities from the top tier of the GOSS to the lower level” and referred to an urgent need for capacity building.
He described the task as a generational one. “It won’t happen overnight.”