Sudan is approaching its most significant political event since it gained independence in 1956 and U.S. interests in regional stability, counterterrorism, democracy and human rights are directly at stake. In just six months, the political landscape will change dramatically if the southern Sudanese choose independence in the January 2011 referendum on self-determination. If not handled well, the process and outcome of the vote can lead to a return to the 22-year North-South civil war that resulted in over 2 million deaths. A misstep in Sudan can destabilize the entire region, drawing in Sudan's nine neighbors, including key countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda on whom the U.S. relies in carrying out its peace process and counterterrorism policies in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Sudan's upcoming referenda create a key historical and geostrategic turning point that warrants President Obama's direct engagement.
The government of Sudan, on the other hand, seems to be sleep walking through its history. Over the past five years, it has missed the opportunities which the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) afforded for the democratic transformation of Sudan. The National Congress Party (NCP) has relied mostly on short-sighted tactical maneuvers, coercion and intimidation rather than a strategic reorientation to persuade Southerners that they have a place in a unified Sudan. We will not know for sure until the vote, but it is likely too late to avoid the breakup of Africa's largest state. The challenge for the Obama Administration is to assist in making the Southern Sudan referendum a non-event; that is, one that takes place on time, without violence, and with an outcome that is respected by all sides.
The NCP is spreading doubt to undermine the January 2011 referenda in which Southerners choose secession or unity and the people of Abyei decide to cast their fate with the South or remain part of the North. The naysayers claim: secession of the South will undermine Africa's continental unity; secession will set a dangerous precedent for countries with Northern Muslim and Southern Christian populations; an independent South Sudan will be Africa's newest failed state given weak institutions and capacity; and secession will lead to war.
Expect delay tactics with the NCP sabotaging the four working groups charged with negotiating the post-referendum arrangements on citizenship, security, international treaties and legal issues, as well as financial and economic issues and natural resources. Already, the NCP refuses to accept the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement's candidates proposed to chair the Abyei Referendum Commission. In contrast, the SPLM has accepted the NCP chair of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission. The latest trick is to claim the referendum cannot go forward before demarcating the North-South border, or resolving post-2011 issues, though no such argument was made when national elections for the north and southern governments were held in April. Next will be a call to postpone the referenda for technical and logistical reasons since voting preparations are not complete. Money and arms continue to flow into the south as part of the NCP campaign to destabilize the region. The international community has seen it all before and the U.S. government, which played a leading role in negotiating the CPA, must prepare to shoulder much of the burden to guarantee its full implementation.
What can the Obama Administration do now to honor the CPA and ensure credible referenda take place?
First, President Obama must engage, and be seen to engage, to bring his national security team together, and to signal to the world and the Sudanese leadership that the future of Sudan is a top priority for his Administration. President Obama should especially place Sudan high on his agenda with China, particularly during the State Visit of President Hu Jintao to the White House. The United States and China can use their unique leverage with the SPLM and NCP respectively to protect the rights of the Southerners and people of Abyei to determine their future, and to ensure that the people of the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan can exercise their right to popular consultation on their status.
Second, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy Gration should undertake a focused diplomatic effort in Africa. The effort should include personal Presidential engagement with his regional counterparts to build consensus with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development's (IGAD) and African Union's (AU) key regional leaders on Sudan issues. IGAD and the African Union must be persuaded to reject any and all efforts to block, stall, or undermine the referenda. The U.S. should also use its global megaphone to counter NCP propaganda that an independent Southern Sudan will serve as a dangerous precedent for the rest of Africa and quickly become a failed state.
Third, the President, Secretary of State, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice should work to empower the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to play a central role in the 2011 referenda. The U.N. has the capability and neutrality necessary to manage the referenda preparations and vote. For example, the U.N. can chair the Abyei Referendum Commission to break the impasse between the SPLM and NCP and enhance the confidence of all sides, especially the Abyei population, that their vote will be counted. The U.N. can also strengthen UNMIS's leadership and technical capabilities in Southern Sudan by placing an Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) in Juba, and adding a more robust stabilization and civil affairs capacity looking toward possible southern independence in July 2011.
Fourth, the President and Secretary of State should push for additional resources in case the southerners vote to secede. The United States, more than any other actor outside the Sudanese themselves, can shape the environment to prevent a return to war. All options should be on the table, including providing an understood security guarantee to Southern Sudan against northern aggression. Working with both sides is also necessary to address remaining CPA implementation issues and negotiate the technical arrangements required to make separation peaceful and viable.
Last, the Obama Administration must not trade-off Darfur in an effort to buy Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's cooperation on the referenda. Appeasing the NCP is a mistake. The U.S. must not back away from its international obligations under UNSC Resolution 1593 that in 2005 referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court, especially as the Sudan government continues bombings in Darfur. It is possible to hold Bashir accountable on Darfur and work with the government to hold the referenda. The Bush Administration maintained strong pressure and sanctions on the Sudan Government, while helping to successfully negotiate the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. President Bush has shown that personally engaging on Sudan and holding the regime accountable can pay major dividends: ending the 22-year civil war, advancement on counterterrorism, greater regional stability, and robust U.N. peacekeeping presence in southern Sudan and Darfur - that the Obama team can reap by following suit.
Time is running out and the time has come for President Obama to personally step up and own the challenge of seeing Sudan through this momentous period, working in close collaboration with the U.N., AU, Chinese, and coordinated with our traditional African, Arab and European partners and stakeholders.
Jendayi E. Frazer is Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. This is Ambassador Frazer's second blog on Sudan for Africa.com; view her first Sudan blog.