- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The U.S. special envoy to Sudan spoke Tuesday about the challenges facing the war-torn country as it prepares for a referendum that likely will result in the secession of South Sudan from the Arab-dominated north.

“We have less than six months until the referendum,” Scott Gration said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We have less than a year until we could, likely, have a new country in Africa — a new country as part of the United Nations.”

“What we do in the next three to six months, I believe, will determine the course of this region for the next three to six years, and so it’s very important that we get this right,” he said.

In accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 between the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Khartoum-based government of Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir, the residents of the south are scheduled to vote on Jan. 9 on political separation.

But in the wake of April’s presidential elections — marred by widespread fraud, voter intimidation and boycotts — many fear that the next vote will be anything but free and fair. Even in the event of a smooth referendum, many issues between north and south may remain unresolved.

“The border demarcation remains a problem,” Mr. Gration said. “We got an agreement to use the 1956 border that was there on Jan. 1, when Sudan got its independence. And about 80 percent of this is a border that can be demarcated relatively easily. But there are still some issues that are tough, especially as you come into the oil-bearing regions.”

Deng Deng Nhial, deputy head of the mission of the government of South Sudan, said it is “really critical that [the parties] do have agreement — at least a legal framework — regarding the post-2011 arrangements.”

Mr. Nhial praised Mr. Gration’s efforts in the region, but the special envoy — who will return to Khartoum this week — has received mixed reviews at home in his 16 months on the job.

Some accuse him of being unduly deferential to a regime that has slaughtered millions of its own citizens — both African Muslims in Darfur and African Christians and animists in the south during the civil war that raged from 1983 until the signing of the CPA in January 2005.

“I think it’s been a fairly rocky road for the special envoy,” said John Norris, executive director of the Enough Project, a group that seeks to mobilize public support for genocide prevention.

“He came into this position and had a fairly steep learning curve. He had never had a senior diplomatic position before, and I think at times that has shown. And obviously Sudan presents an enormously complex set of challenges — the ongoing conflict in Darfur, a potentially messy divorce between north and south.”

Though polls and focus groups have shown overwhelming support among southern Sudanese for political separation, Mr. Gration said, preparations for secession are not intended to preclude the unlikely possibility that the south could choose unity with Khartoum.

“Planning for something doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I plan for my funeral. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna die earlier. It just means I’m gonna have a good funeral when I die.”

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