Sudan, the largest country in Africa, is a time-bomb set to go off next year.
2011 was the date specified under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (widely referred to as the CPA) signed five years ago by the warring North and South. On that date, the South can vote to secede from a confederation that everyone acknowledges is a marriage of convenience, at best.
Ironically, the 2011 plebiscite was intended as a safety-valve. The rebels in the South harbored doubts about the North's good faith when it came to wealth-sharing and power-sharing. The central government in Khartoum, in the North, had broken the last such agreement in 1983, when oil was discovered in the South.
That divorce had been messy: 23 years of ruinous war; more than two million civilians killed; another four million driven from their homes. So the CPA contained an agreement that if this attempt at marriage didn't work out, the partners could walk away peacefully. South Sudan, a region roughly the size of France, would become a fully autonomous nation.
However, as 2011 approaches, the chances of an amicable divorce look increasingly slim.
The marriage is not just on the rocks; it has become abusive. Last year saw an estimated 2,500 people killed in South Sudan - more than in Darfur, to the west - while another 350,000 southerners fled their homes. And the violence appears to be spreading. In early January of this year, so-called "cattle raids" took 139 lives in Warrap state, which had escaped the bloodshed in other southern hot spots.
Khartoum portrays the recent raids as "tribal," but is widely suspected of arming the Nuer tribe against the Dinka, as it did during the civil war. South Sudan is so impoverished that the promise of food and weapons easily enflames ethnic tensions over land and cattle.
Oil remains the chief bone of contention between the two governments. Oil revenues were expected to fund development in the long-marginalized South. That was the key assumption behind the CPA, which provided for proceeds from the South's oil to be split fifty-fifty with the North. Presumably, development would help make the peace attractive to both parties.
However, Khartoum dragged its feet in establishing two joint-commissions mandated under the CPA: one to resolve boundary disputes, the other to bring transparency to oil exploitation. In the meantime, the North continues to pump the oil in disputed territory and claim it for itself. And without transparency, the North is thought to be manipulating its accounting of revenues, according to the London-based group, Global Witness, in a report last September.
If this weren't enough, the shortfall in revenues that reach the South has been exacerbated by the recent plunge in oil prices. Between January 2009 and January 2009 the price per barrel dropped from $91 to $43.
Meanwhile the geopolitics surrounding oil have shifted. Since the CPA was signed in 2005, the U.S. and China have turned increasingly to Africa for oil. In that same five-year span, according to Oil and Gas Journal, geologists have raised their estimates of Sudan's oil reserves tenfold - from roughly half a billion barrels to five billion barrels last year. Sudan has become a major player in Africa.
Understandably, American oil interests are eager to see Washington normalize relations with Sudan. President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, sent up a trial balloon to that effect which drew immediate fire from the Darfur advocacy movement.
Darfur remains a stumbling-block to normalization, as does Sudan President Omar al-Bashir 's indictment as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court. But the biggest obstacle to lasting peace and stability in Sudan is the marginalization that gave rise to the conflicts in the South and Darfur in the first place, and which prevent Sudan from becoming a coherent nation. It should be noted that Sudan in its present form goes back only to 1956, when the departing British hurriedly glommed the South onto the North and left the local Arabs in charge. It remains a deeply divided state, in which an Arab Islamist elite holds power over a more pluralistic black African majority, and over outlying regions like Darfur to the west, and Blue Nile to the east.
Sudan's rulers appear no more willing to share political power than wealth. The national elections originally scheduled for 2008 and delayed repeatedly for lack of agreement on boundaries and an accurate census, are now scheduled for this coming April. But Khartoum's dominant National Congress Party has already tried to steal the vote by imposing impossible obstacles on non-Arab voters. In the South, voters must register with a passport or birth certificate, although most southerners have neither. In Darfur, most survivors living in camps will be prevented from voting.
In addition, the NCP has introduced last-minute unilateral changes to the law under which southerners will vote in the 2011 plebiscite.
None of this comes as any surprise to Africa Confidential, the preeminent political journal covering the region, which observes in is December 2009 issue that "like all totalitarian parties, the NCP knows that if it loses power, it will never regain it."
In sum, the CPA has all but collapsed. Most of the blame lies with Khartoum, some with the South. But some fault surely lies with those nations - the U.S., U.K., and Norway most prominently - who helped shepherd the CPA through three years of extremely challenging negotiations, and who agreed to serve as guarantors, but who afterward turned their backs on it, failing to monitor its progress and provide constructive help where it was needed, as with the census.
"The CPA is like a child," Dr. Benjamin Barnaba, Minister of Regional Cooperation in the government of South Sudan, told me in 2007. "You don't give birth and then you forget. You need to nurse it, see that it grows properly."
A similar plea was issued last October by a group of seven major churches in Sudan, urging the U.S. and other guarantors to "take responsibility."
But recent pronouncements on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the signing of the CPA have ranged from tepid to disingenuous, and offer nothing to counter one's strong impression that the guarantors are in denial: The British Embassy in Khartoum issued a statement on January 12, 2010 declaring that "good progress" had been made in implementing the CPA. In Washington, D.C. four days earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement with Norway and the U.K., in which they vaguely pledged the commitment of their governments to "help bring peace to Sudan."
Clinton went on to cite "positive" achievement during the five years - the sharing of oil wealth, demarcation of borders, and legislative preparations for the coming national elections and the 2011 plebiscite - all half-truths, at best. She did acknowledge the recent violence in the South and called on the government of South Sudan to improve security. And to her credit, she admonished the CNP to suspend by executive order those laws that are "incompatible with free and fair elections."
The secretary was referring only indirectly to Khartoum's history of shutting down newspapers and violently breaking up political demonstrations. She did not mention the Jim Crow restrictions on voter registration and other hobbles that put the legitimacy of the coming elections further into question. Nor did she mention the demonstrations in Khartoum last December when leading members of the opposition party from the South, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement were arrested. Pa'gan Amum Okiech, Secretary General of the SPLM, was beaten.
All told, it was too little, too late, to save a bad marriage.
The elections are particularly problematic. In a recent press conference, President Obama referred to "international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with peaceful dissent" that span cultures and borders, and suggested any elections has to have "legitimacy in the eyes of the its own people." He was responding to a query from HuffPost's Nico Pitney about the Iranian elections, but the same concern applies to Sudan.
Thus far, Khartoum's stance toward "international norms and principles" is a bit of a joke. The danger is that U.S. and U.K. financing of the election process and the presence of international observers for the actual balloting could legitimatize a process that was flawed not in its execution, but in its very architecture.
After five years, the present trajectory is clear: Southerners have received little benefit from the peace, and in all likelihood will vote to secede. And because the bulk of the oil lies in the South, and the North has the pipelines and refineries, the move will almost certainly trigger a return to war. Khartoum is unlikely to let the South go peacefully.
These are the components of failure. But they might become the components of peace if the guarantors of the CPA will stop pretending that the marriage can be saved, accept the reality, and help broker an agreement that prepares for the breakup by insuring that both parties' needs are met. The North needs crude oil; the South needs refining capacity. The marriage may be hopeless, but perhaps a market arrangement between two autonomous nations can make for good neighbors.
Commercial and humanitarian needs may overlap in a productive way. The Chinese, who have a vested interest in stability in the region, are negotiating with Kenya to build a pipeline that would carry South Sudan's oil to the Kenyan coast. This pragmatic acknowledgment of the inevitable could work to everyone's benefit, especially if the Chinese and the guarantors can work in harmony. North Sudan and South Sudan have every reason to get along.
Other issues need to be resolved, and should be resolved while the CPA is still nominally in force. The CPA was in many ways a noble effort: it offers a framework for defusing tensions, for approaching the contested region of Abyei, for acknowledging the other marginalized regions of Sudan, including Darfur, and for managing the Nile basin watershed in an environmentally responsible way.
But let's just not pretend that the CPA is working, when it isn't. Continued denial in the coming months could end up needlessly costing millions of innocent lives.
This is an opportunity for the Obama administration to play a creative and responsible role in Africa.
Jen Marlowe has more at the Pulitzer Center's website