Unfinished business in Sudan

May 13, 2010

The next six months could be the most critical for Sudan as those in the south move toward January 2011 when they will be asked to determine their future, whether it be a separate state or a part of a unified country. The seriously flawed national elections of this past April serve as a preface to what lies ahead. There remains an unfinished agenda which most believe deserves urgent attention if the referendum in January is to be seen as a fair and credible verdict on Sudan's future.

Controversy about the legitimacy of the elections hovers over the process as many see the violations of international standards of fair elections as symptomatic of the treachery of the Omar al-Bashir regime and the likelihood that such mischief will plague attempts to carry out a transparent and trustworthy referendum. However, whatever one's assessment of the reliability of the government in Khartoum, those committed to peace in Sudan must hope that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to an acceptable referendum can be overcome in order that the long-hoped-for peace can become a reality. Otherwise, we are on the precipice of a cataclysmic humanitarian disaster that will once again commit the people of Sudan to suffering and upheaval.

The challenges stem from the many provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which have either been neglected, postponed, or compromised. Of immediate concern is the need for a registration process and an electoral structure that give those eligible to vote in 2011 a chance to do so in a safe environment. The challenges of reaching all possible voters in a vast country with limited access to information and transportation are formidable. Compounding this problem is the lack of experience which the Sudanese have with elections. The exceptional efforts made to carry out aggressive education and outreach in advance of the April elections need to be enhanced and accelerated. Likewise, voting must occur in a secure environment lest violence or the prospect of violence and intimidation undermine the process and place a shadow over whatever results emerge. Given the lack of confidence which most South Sudanese and marginalized groups feel toward the Khartoum government, any suggestion that the electoral process has been violated or manipulated will place in doubt the results of the referendum and possibly usher in a period of dangerous instability.

The critical issue of resource sharing demands an early solution as both parts of Sudan covet and need the revenue from oil production. If an equitable, transparent system for sharing resources can be established prior to next January, the prospect of the election outcome -- whether for separation or independence -- stand a chance of being more palatable to both sides. Murkiness around the way in which revenue is allocated could be a major factor which could contribute to an unstable post-referendum period. Coupled with the revenue sharing issue are those unresolved border issues which add to the fuel of uncertainty that will plague Sudan's future regardless of the verdict rendered next January.

This litany of pre-referendum tasks is indeed daunting. They demand that the U.S. administration pursue a robust strategy with international partners and primarily with the key Sudanese parties to tackle these vexing issues. U.S. leadership needs to be unremitting in pressing for time sensitive measures which hold all parties, and most especially the ruling party in Khartoum, accountable for implementing provisions which could make a difference in whether Sudan moves toward peace or tilts toward violent separation.

A corollary to all of the above is the need to anticipate now the many issues which will demand attention as the prospect of a separate South Sudan looms ever more likely. It is hoped that looking now at the possibility of a separate South Sudan and how the separation happens will make it less wrenching and less prone to conflict and confrontation.

As of this writing, conflict continues to disturb parts of the south and does not bode well for a safe environment for the referendum nor for a stable South Sudan should that be the result of the referendum. It is in this climate that our friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and its primate, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, constantly seek to be a reconciling force in their troubled country. As a major civil society player in the life of Sudan, an enormous burden rests upon the shoulders of our Christian sisters and brothers in Africa's largest country. Our partnership with them as they face the ominous terrain before them has never been more urgently needed nor are our voices and that of our church more desperately needed as advocates with our government aggressively pursue a viable strategy of peacebuilding in Sudan.

Membership in American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (AFRECS) is one way of keeping informed about developments in Sudan and in finding ways of becoming involved in advocating for peace in Sudan and in assisting as partners in Sudan's rebuilding. Participating in the AFRECS National Conference in Alexandria, Virginia, from June 4-6, 2010 offers another opportunity to learn about Sudan in Crisis and to find avenues of engagement.

An ENS story about the upcoming AFRECS conference is available here.