- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

The United States is helping South Sudan prepare for independence after a 2011 referendum, according to a representative of the region in Washington.

Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of South Sudan’s mission to the United States, told reporters and editors of The Washington Times on Thursday that a good chunk of the nearly $1 billion in annual U.S. aid to Sudan is going to build roads, train police and professionalize a separate army in the south.

“The United States government, one of their goals now, is to make sure southern Sudan in 2011 is a viable state,” he said.

Under the terms of a 2005 agreement that ended a decades-long civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, southern Sudanese are to be allowed to vote on Jan. 9, 2011, whether to set up an independent state.

The vote is to be preceded by presidential and parliamentary elections in all of Sudan next year.

Mr. Gatkuoth accused the government of Sudanese President Omar Bashir of trying to prevent free and fair voting by arresting southern Sudanese leaders and interfering with legislation governing the elections.

Mr. Gatkuoth said the coming 12 months would be crucial to determining the fate of the country.

“In 2010, we either make it or break it,” he said. “An election can lead to war if you feel cheated.”

On Monday, Sudan’s parliament in Khartoum is scheduled to vote on a referendum law. The parliament voted earlier this week on the legislation, but removed compromise language between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Bashir government that required voters to prove their southern Sudanese origin. The new vote was scheduled for Monday after U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly urged Lt. Gen. Bashir’s government to “restore the agreed-upon language.”

An administration official declined specific comment Thursday on Mr. Gatkuoth’s remarks, apart from saying that “the United States continues to call on all parties to work together to ensure the upcoming elections and referenda are conducted in a credible manner.”

The 2011 referendum could simultaneously divide Sudan into two countries and reignite a civil war.

Mr. Gatkuoth said that Gen. Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his purported role in authorizing genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, is determined to prevent the south from gaining independence.

Most of Sudan’s oil is located in the south, as are the headwaters of the Nile River. The northern part of the country, however, includes the city of Port Sudan, from which the oil is exported, largely to China.

Mr. Gatkuoth said the U.S. was helping to prepare the south for independence and that the region’s most critical needs involve agriculture and policing.

The International Crisis Group, a Belgium- and Washington-based organization that seeks to prevent conflict, criticized the southern Sudanese government in a report Wednesday for failing to provide security in the state of Jonglei.

“The South Sudan police service … is of abysmal quality,” the report said.

Mr. Gatkuoth conceded that the police are weak in South Sudan, but also accused the Khartoum government of exploiting tribal conflicts to provide an excuse to postpone the referendum.

He said Sudan’s most important trading partner, China, had recognized the likelihood of southern Sudanese independence by establishing a consulate in Juba, the capital of the southern region. He said that there had already been discussions between the southern government and China’s national oil company about arrangements after 2011.

The envoy said he was particularly worried that a national security law gives Sudan’s intelligence service the authority to arrest the political opponents of Gen. Bashir and detain them for nine months without trial.

“If there is a free election, Bashir will not win,” Mr. Gatkuoth said.

He also warned that demarcating the border between north and south and a border district known as Abyei would be contentious.

Mr. Gatkuoth said he was most worried that Khartoum would try to postpone the 2011 referendum.

“Even if you postpone that for one day, the people of southern Sudan will not accept it,” he said.

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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