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Hilde F. Johnson, Assistant Secretary General in the United Nations, on the Future of Sudan

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In a recent interview with Hilde F. Johnson, Assistant Secretary General in the United Nations, we discussed the secession of Southern Sudan and future prospects for peace and stability. Hilde F. Johnson played a pivotal role in the achievement of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan (2005), and served as Norwegian Development Minister from 1997-2000 and 2001-2005. Her new book, "Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations That Ended Africa's Longest Civil War" is now available.

Rahim Kanani: With almost 99% of Southern Sudanese voting to secede, what are the most immediate challenges facing an independent Southern Sudan, and Sudan as a whole?

Hilde F. Johnson: The referendum was conducted better than anyone would have predicted. Even more unexpectedly for most, the government in Khartoum seems to respect the result. The conflict many feared seems to be averted, and we can hear a collective sigh of relief internationally. But it is much, much too early for that. There are numerous challenges. The terms of the secession need to be agreed upon. The status of Abyei, the contested border area, will be the most immediate challenge to resolve, but also the situation in other border areas is extremely fragile. Conflict can easily erupt. South Sudan will have to establish the full structures of an independent state, and is facing numerous challenges. They will need a lot of support in state building and capacity development to build an independent nation.

Rahim Kanani: Before South Sudan becomes independent on July 9, the two sides must also reach agreement on the terms of secession. Which role should the international community play in this regard?

Hilde F. Johnson: At the moment, the two parties are sorting out a number of the post referendum issues themselves, and that is very good. However, a few critical ones still remain, the status of Abyei and the oil-related issues included. In these areas international engagement is necessary. There are already mediators involved, with Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union playing the most important role, and the Americans and the Norwegians are also active. However, the most critical factor in resolving these remaining issues is a unified and coherent voice internationally and a fully coordinated approach. I hope we will see this now. It will be critical to ensure a positive outcome.

Rahim Kanani: From your experience in helping broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, outlined in your new book "Waging Peace in Sudan", what lessons can you draw from that process? And do any of them apply to today's situation?

Hilde F. Johnson: The Sudan-negotiations under the auspices of IGAD was led by General Sumbeiywo, the mediator. The 2005-agreement would not have been completed, however, without the intense efforts of the "Troika", of the US, the UK and Norway. If there is one important lesson to learn from the negotiations that ended Africa's longest civil war, it is the need for international engagement -- continuous, coordinated and forceful. The same is needed now. This means resolving all remaining post-referendum issues, including Abyei, before Southern Sudan becomes independent on 9 July 2011. It means following through with forceful engagement in peace building processes in the whole country and supporting the nascent new Southern state in the right way. And -- it means staying power -- to ensure stability for all Sudanese in the long term.

Rahim Kanani: What are the implications of the South's secession to its neighbors and the region at large?

Hilde F. Johnson: There has been a lot of anxiety around the possible secession of Southern Sudan before the referendum. This was both related to the overall risk of a relapse to war, the potential impact of spill-over effects and the possibility of setting a precedent for the African continent. In my opinion, the fear of a 'wave' of demands for independence across Africa was significantly overstated. Sudan is a unique case. In no other country has the civil war been going on almost since independence. And nowhere else on the continent has the conflict been so deeply rooted. It needed a unique solution.

As the process of the referendum went better than expected, the fear also of major and immediate spill over-effects have subsided. The challenge is now related to stability in both 'Sudans', in Sudan and its Southern neighbor. This is still a major challenge. If the situation unravels in either of the two, it will have a significant impact on neighboring countries and the region as a whole. The cost of conflict is affecting neighboring states as much as the country itself. That is why stability in the whole of Sudan -- and in both Sudans -- is so critical.

Rahim Kanani: What worries you the most about the future of Sudan?

Hilde F. Johnson: The immediate challenge is the need to get an orderly and neighborly separation process with agreement on all issues. If this does not happen, we are in troubled waters. A lot of the focus will now be on Southern Sudan, and rightly so. But the situation in the North is also fragile and needs to be managed very carefully. Apart from the pressing crisis in Darfur, episodes of violence can slide out of control in Abyei and Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, the Eastern region, parts of the South, or in other border areas. This is extremely risky and can happen in the long term. Tensions and violence can spread across all of them. The key is the parties' own interest in retaining peace - and the role of the international community in waging peace.

The late Chairman of the SPLM/A predicted the scenario of a failed State in the Sudan -- the very scenario they wanted to avoid in the first place by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. I will go even further: There is a danger of a full fragmentation of Sudan. It is my hope that maturity among leaders in other marginalized areas, as well as strong and competent engagement by the international community, will prevent such a worst case from becoming a reality.

Rahim Kanani: Lastly, what do you think are the most critical factors to sustaining peace?

Hilde F. Johnson: None of the two parties want to reignite Africa's longest civil war. But it can still happen - inadvertently. As I already said, there are enough hot spots in the country, the oil-producing Abyei being the worst, where small incidences can spin out of control and lead to serious conflict and unrest across several regions.

Negotiating peace is difficult, but it cannot be compared with the challenge of implementation. History shows that more than half of all peace agreements fall apart and relapse into war. The toughest job begins the day after the agreement has been signed, putting painful compromises into practice. It is during this period the agreement needs international support and pressure the most. Yet, the same mistake seems to be made over and over again. There is no staying power. The engagement withers away when the ink is dry and the job begins. This time around, we need to do better.

This means a systematic peace building process, capturing the political processes, security and peace dividends, reconstruction and development. This process must include both South Sudan and other marginalized areas in Sudan. Only through a comprehensive engagement in both countries can we ensure that all Sudanese experience peace and stability in the years to come.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary.