In the recent weeks, Khartoum has increased its rhetoric that there are key post-referendum aspects that must be negotiated and agreed upon before the referendum; otherwise they will not recognize the vote’s outcome. Some key leaders including Pres Omar Bashir have threatened a likelihood of conflict should the vote be held without agreeing on all of these issues. On its hand, the SPLM led by its chairman and southern president Salva Kiir has vowed to go ahead with the vote even if it means unilaterally organizing and conducting it. One might say that the war drums are beating and everyone should prepare for war.

In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that either Khartoum or Juba is willing to bring out the guns again, at least with an intention of another round of full scale war. The costs are just too high and no one is guaranteed of outright and quick victory.

However, there are several things that can be done to mitigate the worst of possibilities and ensure a smooth transition during and after the referendum.

  1. Outstanding issues in post-referendum arrangements negotiations: Accept that the referendum does not spell the end of negotiations of key issues. One of the main reasons the mediation that led to the CPA signing succeeded was because the mediators were able to convince the parties (especially NCP) that the signing did not close the door for further consultation and negotiations on the then contentious issues; it was going to provide an interim period to the finalization of these issues.
    1. On Abyei; there is need to mainstream the involvement of the local communities of Dinka Ngok and Misseriya in the negotiations. As witnessed in many other natural resource-based conflicts in Africa, discovery of high value resources has often brought with it conflicts engineered by elites who take advantage of ethnic differences of groups living on such resource finds, yet these groups were living peacefully side by side before the discovery. Clearly, it is the political elites who drive the conflicts and thus the peace talks must be spearheaded by the local communities themselves with political elites only coming in to strengthen what the locals have agreed within the larger government institutions of peace building and economic development.
    2. On border demarcation; the remaining twenty percent that is yet to be demarcated is, as the International Crisis Group noted, a political not technical issue. Examples abound globally where sovereigns are still solving long-standing border issues under the auspices of international dispute resolution mechanisms.
  2. Role of IGAD:  Scott Gration can not act like George Mitchell. It is unfortunate that the IGAD team of states which, despite playing a key role in the mediation efforts, has not lived up to its billing as the key local guarantor. This regional body has become a backseat spectator, leaving western nations to take the lead in post-war peace- and state-building and thus giving Khartoum room to rubbish any good-intentioned intervention as ‘meddling in internal affairs of a sovereign state’ and ‘neocolonialism’. The AU, whose key voices include the likes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, readily fronted this as the basis for refusing to cooperate with international bodies like UNSC, UNAMID and ICC. IGAD must retake the lead role in the Sudan peace efforts. This will deny Khartoum, and by extension the AU, the perfect excuse of non-compliance with its obligations under international law. The international community, especially the US should only come in to complement the efforts of IGAD, just like they led the Troika on nations during the CPA negotiations.
  3. Southern unity: the recent conference of political parties held in Juba early October could well be the most critical preparation for separation by the southern leadership. Even if they secede, south Sudan runs a high risk of internal divisions entrenched in years of interethnic conflicts and political divisions. This inter-parties political dialogue is something that the international community should strengthen and institute a thorough follow up to ensure that the resolutions such the multi-stakeholder constitutional conference after the referendum is actually set up. This will guarantee a strong and accountable polity for a future South Sudan state.
  4. Immediate recognition of separation vote: The most critical moments will be when the vote is concluded and the ballots are counted. Predictably, there will be many poll-related issues that any party might use to refuse to recognize the outcome. In that very decisive and nail-biting moment, a very hard decision will have to be made not just is Khartoum and Juba but in many capitals all around the world. Analysts expect majority of players in the Khartoum decision-making machine to lean heavily towards non-recognition of separation vote while the one in Juba leans the other way. If there was ever a moment the powder keg that is Sudan can explode, this is it. The question is: will regional and other capitals have the boldness to act swiftly to avert the worst case scenario by promptly and decisively stating their positions without delay? The world will be watching Juba, Khartoum, Nairobi, Washington, Beijing and Cairo and to some extent Addis Ababa for direction in the immediate period following the conclusion of the vote.