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Zach Vertin

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Now the Real Work Begins in Sudan

Posted: 01/21/11 02:55 PM ET

Juba, Sudan -- The people of Southern Sudan have spoken, and their voice was loud and clear. Last week's overwhelming vote for independence is an extraordinary measure that will split Africa's largest country and birth the world's newest state. But now the real work begins.

Sudan's historic self-determination referendum offered long-marginalized Southerners a choice: remain part of a united country or secede. Eager to part ways with oppressive regimes in Khartoum, voters turned out in droves, many dressed in their Sunday best, others had camped out the night before in order to be among the first to vote. The much-awaited poll was overwhelming in favor of separation (upwards of 98%) and a sense of euphoria envelopes this nation-in-waiting.

The referendum was a key element of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended two decades of war, fostered democratic transformation, and guaranteed the South a right to self-determination. The vote means South Sudan will achieve independence in July--when the peace agreement expires. Thus, this week's vote was not the finish line but the critical first step on the path to an independent and democratic state. Two monumental tasks lie ahead.

First, crucial elements of the peace accord remain to be implemented, and the foundations for a constructive North-South relationship are yet to be laid. The country's North-South border must be demarcated and a sustainable solution to the hotly contested Abyei border region found. A set of future arrangements must be agreed on citizenship and nationality, oil-sharing, currency, assets and liabilities, and security.

Such a blueprint will prevent last week's success from degenerating into a messy and potentially destructive divorce. Progress now toward a series of win-win post-referendum arrangements will facilitate a smooth transition in July and provide the best foundation for two viable, stable, and prosperous states.

Despite commendable efforts, negotiations to date have borne little fruit, as neither party proved particularly willing to deal. Now that the poll is complete, the parties must return to the table sooner than later, lest talks drag on indefinitely. Buoyed by the referendum outcome, the SPLM feels its negotiating position has improved and may prove more willing to deal.

Meanwhile, money now matters most to Khartoum. Oil is the single greatest source of revenue in both North and South, and it may be time to bring that issue -- and the broader financial discussion -- to the fore. (The division of the country means the majority of the oil will belong to the South, but the infrastructure to exploit that oil -- pipelines, refineries, and export terminals -- is in the North.) The economic impact of secession will be felt in Khartoum. Austerity measures have already been enacted to slow an economic downturn, and long-standing political challenges mount. Increasing financial pressure could weaken the National Congress Party's iron-grip on power and possibly alter the dynamics at the negotiating table. An oil deal will necessarily be part of a broader financial package that also addresses currency and allocation of Sudan's $40 billion debt. Securing a package Khartoum can live with may alleviate some of their current insecurities and open doors to progress on other post-CPA arrangements.

Second, the challenges get no easier in South Sudan after July. The rebel movement turned governing party -- the Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- dominates the political arena. Since the end of the war, opposition voices have suppressed grievances and taken a back seat to the SPLM so as to preserve the goal shared by all southerners -- self-determination. But now that the vote has been cast, that common denominator is gone. When the jubilation of last week's vote subsides, the political environment will slowly begin to transform. The current leadership must respond accordingly, recognizing that a genuine opening of political space is both necessary and in their long-term interest. They must find a way to equitably manage the South's own diversity, lest they simply duplicate the sort of autocratic regime they've finally managed to escape.

In recent months, U.S. and broader international engagement intensified toward a timely referendum and a framework on post-referendum arrangements. Now that the first objective has been achieved, attention may soon shift to other global hotspots. But neglecting the second will undermine all efforts thus far toward the first, and threaten the fragile peace. Attention similarly waned following the signing of the peace accord, and international community cannot afford to repeat this history. If it does not sustain its focus -- and find ways to shake up the process-the parties may continue to go through the motions before attempting a grand bargain on the eve of CPA expiration in July. Such high-stakes gambling must be pre-empted.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and other partners must urge the SPLM forward on the road toward multi-party and multi-ethnic democracy. A constitutional process, inclusive governance, and an aptitude for decentralization will all be essential. A dose of tough love may also be necessary along the way.

A hard-won liberty is rightly being celebrated across Southern Sudan, but tomorrow it's back to work.

Zach Vertin is a Sudan Analyst with the International Crisis Group.