NAIROBI, Kenya — Last month, President Obama told a high-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that “the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance.”
He was talking about Sudan.
As that fragile nation’s peace agreement between North and South enters its final phase, and a contentious referendum on southern self-determination looms, the international community has trained its attention on expediting delayed preparations for that referendum and ensuring compliance with its result. But if international partners hope to underwrite a lasting peace, their sense of urgency must also be channeled beyond January, toward sustaining new momentum in talks on a constructive post-referendum relationship.
Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended two decades of war that claimed more than two million lives. The textbook-thick agreement bound the war’s primary protagonists — Khartoum’s National Congress Party and the Southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement — to a host of tasks aimed to consolidate the peace and “make unity attractive” over the course of the ensuing six years. The agreement balanced the latter objective by guaranteeing Southerners a referendum near the end of that period (January 2011) to choose whether to remain united, or to secede.
As the parties — and the NCP in particular — have done little to foster an environment in which unity might prevail, the majority of Southerners are primed to cast their vote for separation.
Now, only 70 days remain until the vote. Preparations are considerably behind schedule, and some — though not all — camps within the NCP are working to delay, or deny, the referendum. Thus, much of the international hype is focused on pulling off the exercise on time, on the 9th of January.
However, equally important for the long-term stability of the region is agreement on a series of post-referendum arrangements between North and South. Pursuing this broader goal is not only critical for a peaceful transition, but may also serve the more immediate objective of clearing the path for a timely, credible, and mutually accepted referendum.
The post-CPA relationship between Sudan’s North and semi-autonomous South must be mapped whether the country remains one or (more likely) becomes two. Issues to be negotiated include citizenship and nationality, natural resource management (oil and water), financial and economic issues (assets, debts and currency), and security. To this end, the parties commenced bilateral talks — aided by African Union facilitation — in July. Negotiating teams from each party are supported by bilateral working groups, who engage concurrently — yet in a somewhat staggered fashion — on each agenda item.
For months, little progress was made and the parties appeared stuck in a holding pattern. Given the political brinkmanship that has long characterized Sudan’s North-South politics, it seemed the parties could continue to circle fruitlessly before attempting to strike a grand bargain — or extort major concessions — at the 11th hour. Such high-stakes gambling must be avoided. Fortunately, there are signs of movement in recent days. The AU and international partners are helping to build momentum and more earnest discussions are underway in Khartoum.
While recognizing that each of the agenda items are legally, practically, and politically intertwined, international partners should encourage incremental progress — through some degree of sequencing. In-principle agreement on one post-referendum issue could unlock more options on another, and increase the chances for a comprehensive package.
For example, hundreds of thousands of southerners who were displaced during the war now live, work, and raise families in the North — particularly in and around Khartoum. Similarly, many northern populations desire continued access to the South — most notably pastoralist communities who spend a considerable portion of their year (sometimes six months of dry season) grazing cattle in the South.
If the parties were to endorse principles of dual citizenship or liberal movement and residence rights, options for future economic activity, border management, and security provisions might come in to sharper focus. Agreed citizenship principles — if well communicated — might simultaneously serve to minimize anxiety among those who fear partition could ultimately result in a hardening of the otherwise permeable north-south boundary.
As the referendum is sure to shock Sudan’s political system, the parties should be pressed to make as much headway as possible now, but also to ensure that a mechanism is firmly in place so that negotiations can continue beyond January — up to (and possibly beyond) July 2011 — the date on which both the CPA expires and the South would theoretically attain independence.
In an ideal world, the parties would agree all such arrangements prior to the referendum. But with time short and preparations for the vote itself dominating the political arena, this is unlikely. The additional six months may thus be critical to build upon foundational agreements already negotiated, and ensure a smooth transition to the post-CPA era.
Some in the NCP are focused less on thwarting the process and more on securing a favorable package of post-referendum arrangements. Progress now toward a series of win-win arrangements could remove obstacles to the referendum itself and temper the potential impact of its result. Securing the referendum is priority number 1, but neglecting the groundwork toward positive post-referendum relations is a short-sighted recipe for renewed conflict.
Zach Vertin is a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group.