Botched Sudan referendum could reignite war

Political disputes delay South Sudan referendum

Bitter political disputes and brinkmanship over referenda scheduled for January on the possible breakup of Sudan could reignite one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars, a research institute warned in a study published Friday.

"At this final stage, brinkmanship, delays and broken agreements — old traditions of Sudanese politics — threaten to turn the political and technical challenges of the referenda into a national disaster," said the Rift Valley Institute (RVI).

The vote scheduled for January is the end-game of a 2005 peace deal ending more than two decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan, and most experts predict southern Sudanese will vote to create the world’s newest nation state.

But the credibility of the ballot is under threat from logistical problems and from deliberate stalling on the part of northern politicians hostile to the prospect of southern independence, the not-for-profit institute said.

"In the event of a vote against unity, a southern referendum with serious technical flaws would damage the legitimacy of secession," the report entitled "Race Against Time" said.

"A disputed result would hold serious risks in terms of a potential return to north-south military confrontation."

The 65-page report said time pressure made it "increasingly unlikely that the (referendum) will be conducted without procedural deficiencies." Lack of clarity in the voting process or the disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters could lead to questions about the result’s validity.

The northern ruling National Congress Party has said it would accept the referendum result but always adds the caveat "if it is a free and fair process."

"Herculean" effort needed

The report said the referendum commission had to exert a "Herculean" effort to ensure the referendum vote was perceived as fairer than presidential and parliamentary elections held in April this year, which were criticized by opposition groups.

The head of the southern referendum commission said on Thursday it would be a "miracle" if the vote took place on time given the tight deadline and logistical problems.

Some Security Council members have said they would accept a short technical delay. The report said this may be required to maintain the credibility of the vote.

The north-south civil war claimed some 2 million lives mostly by famine and disease. It was fuelled by differences over oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology.

On Monday, Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, also warned of a "return to war" in the country if the vote is held in Abyei without a final accord from the Khartoum government.

The RVI said "only concerted international attention and skilful diplomacy can bring the process of self-determination in Sudan to a successful conclusion."

The institute, which has offices in Britain and the United States, describes itself as a non-profit research, education and advocacy organization which operates in Sudan, the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the Great Lakes.

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