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On the several times I have travelled to Southern Sudan recently, I have not failed to notice the many development strides the country has made since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement
One also notices a region pregnant with hope and expectation in the run-up to the referendum in January next year.
The immediate challenge is for nations and agencies of goodwill to ensure that this hope does not abort.
The reputation of the UN, the African Union and regional bodies will be at stake if peaceful transition is not achieved in Southern Sudan.
With economic woes dominating the USA and the European Union, we have not seen sufficient focus on Southern Sudan from the West, although some belated diplomatic activity is now visible.
Like any referendum, the January 2011 vote is a Yes/No decision by the people of Southern Sudan to determine to remain in the unity government or separate into a sovereign state.
Whichever way the vote goes, the referendum should not result in violence and return to civil war.
However, the mood I noticed in the South generally points to a vote for separation.
Over the last five years, the South appears to have prepared the basic governance, diplomatic and economic structures in readiness for a new sovereign status.
That is why there is frustration at the slow pace of preparation for the defining moment.
The North and the South, I am sure, sincerely realise the gravity of a return to civil war.
This realisation is likely to motivate the two parties to avert a crisis.
Both sides would be losers in a civil war situation as it would be tantamount to mutual self-annihilation, politically and economically.
If one looks at the key resource that today mutually interests the two sides — that is oil revenues — neither the North nor the South would wish to “spill the milk” by plunging the country back to war.
Oil cannot be produced in an environment of chaos and sabotage, and neither the North nor the South will reap the benefits of oil revenues if there is no peace in the oilfields.
Besides, until the South develops an alternative export route for their oil, they will need the North to market it.
The North on the other hand will need revenues from the South for the existing oil export infrastructure to Port Sudan.
A formula for mutual inter-dependence on oil production and marketing will need to be worked out as no side will benefit if the oil remains in the ground.
The other school of thought advises that there may not be sufficient time left to resolve the most urgent outstanding political issues like the disputed Abyei oil enclave and the common boundaries.
If the South is adamant that the January date must be met, the referendum may end up being botched up due to inadequate and late preparations.
This may lead to a vote that is neither credible nor conclusive.
Probably the right option at this late hour is for the South and the North to be facilitated to strike an intermediate enabling deal that defines a new timetable towards a new date of a referendum.
However, the bridging deal must have irrevocable guarantees by key nations, the UN and regional agencies.
But this time it would be a commitment to an action plan with specific deadlines, supervised probably by an international independent commission.
It is better to lose a few months and hold a credible referendum.
The absence of a visible Chinese role in resolving the potential crisis in Sudan baffles me.
The Chinese have the largest foreign stake in oil production and export infrastructure, and in fact most of Sudan’s oil ends up in China.
It is the Chinese interests that would suffer most if there was civil war, and yet there appears to be no visible diplomatic efforts by the Asian giant to ensure there is no crisis.
The US government’s stated interest to ensure smooth transition in Sudan has also unfortunately not effectively and visibly translated into any diplomatic successes.
Probably, the US has taken a bit too long to re-establish full and enabling diplomatic presence in Sudan, and as such its influence may not be effective enough.
The East Africa Community (EAC) is of course apprehensive of slow progress in the referendum process.
There has been anticipation that Southern Sudan will in January 2011 attain sovereignty and join the EAC as the sixth member state.
Kenyans and Ugandans especially, have invested heavily in the South and this is why, through Igad, the EAC countries should ensure everything works out positively come early next year.
The EAC already needs peace in Somalia and eastern DRC, and will not wish to witness Southern Sudan revert to a third frontier of instability.
It is also true that peace in the South over the last five years has enabled the Lords Resistance Army menace to be removed from the immediate vicinity of Uganda.
This has opened up the northern parts of Uganda to economic and infrastructural developments, offering an effective corridor link with Southern Sudan.
The development of the proposed Lamu corridor through Kenya is also premised on the peaceful political transition in Southern Sudan, and as such, this project does need the peace to prop up its economic justification.
My gut feeling is that there is so much to be lost by many vested interests by not successfully concluding the Southern Sudan referendum that the concerned parties will work very hard over the remaining two months to
ensure that the South remains peaceful.
The people of Southern Sudan deserve a chance to peaceful political and economic development, and this should give a chance to Southern Sudanese, who have remained in the Diaspora, to return home.
Many countries are anxiously waiting for a peaceful referendum to commit investments in Southern Sudan to develop infrastructure, exploit natural
resources and develop agriculture.