Connect to share and comment

Obama presses for Sudan solution

Referendum over independence of South from North seen as key.

Sudanese demonstrate for referendum
Southern Sudanese demonstrate to support a referendum scheduled for January over whether or not the south will be independent from north. (Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — On Friday U.S. President Barack Obama will press to keep Sudan's crucial referendum on track and prevent Africa's largest country from returning to civil war.

Obama will make a concerted but diplomatic push at the United Nations meeting on Sudan amid rising fears that war once again looms in a strategic oil-rich state that sits on the continent's Muslim-Christian divide.

Sudan has been more often at war than at peace for half a century. The most recent round of north-south civil conflict lasted 22 years and killed an estimated 2 million people, mostly from starvation and illness.

The 2005 peace deal ended the war between the northern Islamist government in Khartoum and the mostly Christian southern rebels, although fresh fighting erupted in the western region of Darfur.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, brokered by the United States and others, was one of the few unquestionable foreign policy successes of the Bush administration. And now Obama does not want to preside over its unravelling. This concern has spurred U.S. policymakers in recent days.

As prescribed in the peace agreement, Sudan held national elections in April and a referendum on independence for the south is scheduled for January. Also to be decided is whether the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei will lie north or south of the 1,300-mile border.

But the referendum, and therefore the tenuous five-year peace, is threatened by a combination of poor preparation and apparent finagling by the Khartoum government, according to diplomats in Sudan.

In the New York meeting — to be hosted by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and attended by Sudanese, African Union and World Bank officials, as well as representatives of other interested nations — Obama is expected to take a tough line insisting that the referendum must go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 9.

The meeting “gives the opportunity for the international community to stand together again and send a very forceful message at a critical make-or-break time,” said Samantha Power, a special assistant to the president on multilateral affairs, in a conference call with reporters this week.

“The No. 1 message is that these referenda must go off on time, that they must be peaceful and they must reflect the will of the people of South Sudan,” she said.

Critics have accused the Obama administraton of ignoring the Sudan issue for too long. But the president is now beginning to apply concetrated pressure for the referendum at what officials say is a decisive moment.

This month Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, offered Khartoum a package of incentives including debt relief, the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the removal of Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terror if President Omar Al Bashir allows the January referendum to go ahead peacefully.

Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur, rejected the incentives. “We are not interested in charity,” a government spokesman said.

Gration, who this month made his 20th trip to Sudan since being appointed, has been joined by Princeton Lyman, a former ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, as part of his negotiating team. Supporters of the move say Lyman’s appointment bolsters the U.S. diplomatic team but critics say it further muddies the water as to who really speaks for Washington.