Sudan Faces a Brave New Possibility

Will the upcoming referendum in Southern Sudan herald a brand-new future for Africa's 55th nation? Or does it mean the start of another really bloody civil war?

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KHARTOUM, SUDAN -- The run-up before Sunday's referendum on whether Southern Sudan should secede from the North has prompted widespread speculation over whether the outcome will cause renewed bloodshed and dissolution or herald the founding of Africa's 55th nation. Not since the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine in 1947 has so much depended on the outcome of a regional ballot initiative, and few nations have been at the nexus of more complexity, with race, religion, economics, the environment, politics and history all key to understanding the dynamics of this long-awaited plebiscite and the future of tens of millions of people.

Unlike the U.N. vote on the Palestinian partition, in this case only Southern Sudanese can vote on cessation. Millions of them actually live elsewhere, having fled to bordering countries and to the North in the aftermath of the ongoing bloodshed. Now they are returning to the region to cast their ballots, many bringing all of their earthly belongings with the intention of permanently resettling in their new country -- which today is a place with no infrastructure, no clear rules and no clearly demarcated borders.

Police and troops are increasing their presence here and elsewhere around the country, and tensions are high. Tens of thousands of election monitors, led by the U.N. and the African Union, are here, and there is widespread speculation that rampant vote rigging will take place. There is also a heightened sense of anticipation that the expected secession could signal a return to hostilities, both between the North and South as well as among militias in the south. Others hope for enough time to develop what the fledgling nation will need most: a stable civil apparatus and a viable oil-revenue-sharing agreement with the North.

As Africa's largest country, Sudan has long sat at the confluence of seemingly disparate forces: Arab and African; Christian and Muslim; first world and developing world. Opponents of cessation say that the county can accommodate opposing thrusts. But proponents argue that balancing these interests is virtually impossible. One oft-cited issue is Northern Sudan's Shariah law, which Christian and animist Southerners say holds inherent disadvantages for them.

Sudan has long been home to epic violence and bloodshed between the non-Muslim South and the Islamic North. An estimated 2 million have died; millions more have been displaced. In 2005 the Bush administration characterized the killings as "genocide." Since 1997 the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Sudan.

The country has become another proxy for economic and cultural wars whose genesis lies beyond its borders, as major powers jockey for control of its vast oil resources, located mainly in what is now the South. Add to this the estimated 132 tribes spread among Sudan and its neighbors, and the fact that whole regions of the country are full of religious and ethnic fervor -- and weapons.

China has played the superpower role in Sudan and has access to the country's oil via its relationship with the Bashir regime, a relationship that some in the Bashir regime argue is merely expedient. "If the regime had not developed the oil relationships we have, we would not be in power," says one high-ranking government official. The question for Khartoum, he added, is "whether it should jeopardize its relationship with China in the hope for a quick end to the U.S. sanctions … I don't think so!"

Yet the economics raise an issue regarding Bashir's promises: The oil cannot get to its markets unless the landlocked South makes a deal with his government to pipe the oil to the coast, where it can be sent to the world's markets. The North will be hard-pressed if there is a significant and continuing loss of oil revenues. "There may well be two states after the vote," the government official said. "But there will also be integration."

Compounding the problem is the complex and tense relationship between armed militias in Southern Sudan. The Obama administration -- anxious to avoid condemnation for failing to act to stop the bloodshed, as was the case with the Clinton administration in Rwanda in 1994 -- has invested considerable resources in Sudan.

In the six years since a fragile peace agreement was forged between the North and South, the international community has also devoted considerable attention to Sudan. Yet many here wonder where the help will come from if hostilities break out in the aftermath of the expected secession. Few expect a quick end to the U.S. sanctions. Instead, the U.S. is expected to provide key support for Southern Sudan, and some speculate that it might even base its new Africa Command there.

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