The Chaotic Birth of South Sudan

MADRID – The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was reached in 2005 between mostly Christian southern Sudan and the country’s Muslim North, ended one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times. Lasting 22 years, that war left more than two million dead. Now the CPA is poised to face its most vital test: the South’s referendum on independence, scheduled for January 9.

Whether or not a new state is born in one of the most strategically sensitive areas of the world is of utmost concern to Sudan’s neighbors and others. Vital issues are at stake: the scramble for oil; China’s robust presence in Sudan; the West’s desire to see a mostly Christian state break the contiguity of Muslim regimes – and the consequent threat of Islamic radicalism – in the region; the regional distribution of the Nile’s waters; and the possibility that independence for the South might lead to Sudan’s total dismemberment along ethnic and religious lines.

The fact that Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, is not especially keen to agree to the United Nations’ plan to beef up its peacekeeping force in the country ahead of the referendum raises concern about his intentions. He would certainly be happy to delay the vote – and, if it is held, to dispute its legitimacy.

He might not find that very difficult. Preparations for the referendum are lagging and inadequate. Brinkmanship and broken agreements threaten to turn the referendum’s technical and political difficulties into yet another disaster for the country. The 2.5 million Southern Sudanese known to live in the North are under explicit instructions by the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army to boycott the referendum, as the SPLA has grounds to believe that Bashir would use their registration to rig the results in favor of unity.