Worrying signs that Omar al-Bashir’s regime is not taking the south’s bid for independence seriously.
In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, expectations are high. No matter who you speak to, it seems that the answer is always the same; separation cannot come soon enough.
The reason for this is clear. Southerners have a tendency to lay most of the blame for the suffering that two civil wars have brought squarely at the feet of the government in Khartoum, often overlooking the atrocities that were committed by their own leaders.
In a lavishly-furnished car hire office, which has the air conditioning turned up a fraction too high, I meet George.
Two years ago, George took the decision to leave Australia, his adopted homeland, and return to the country where he grew up. Sudan’s civil war was officially over, and George felt that he could usefully contribute to the rebuilding of the post-war society.
Leaning over the desk, George says in a low, emphatic whisper, “On January 9, we will become an independent nation. There really is no other choice.” It is rare to find a southerner living in Juba who does not share such views.
Of course, Juba does not represent the whole of South Sudan. But there are enough people in the capital city calling for independence to give a fair indication of how January’s vote will go.
More than 1,000 kilometres to the north in Khartoum, things are noticeably different.
While the south is making a great deal of noise about the historic significance of the referendum, many officials in Khartoum have been worryingly silent.
Few column inches are given over to talk of the referendum in the Sudanese media – and when the subject is touched upon, it is invariably to point out the benefits of unity. There are not many commentators in the north who are even discussing the possibility of what will happen if secession does go ahead.
Worse, there are signs that certain factions of the ruling National Congress Party, NCP, might be prepared to disrupt the referendum.
On September 27, Haj Majid Suwar, a prominent NCP politician, said that his party would not accept the vote unless southern troops withdrew from contested areas and allowed free campaigning.
The north has only just dropped its objections to the composition of a referendum commission to register voters and oversee the polls, and only after the south agreed to let it be headed by a northerner, Ibrahim Khalil.
With just over three months until the crucial poll, there may not be sufficient time for the referendum commission to carry out its work.
For its part, the government denies that it is actively trying to sabotage the referendum process. President Omar al-Bashir and second vice-president Ali Osman Mohammed Taha have both said that they will accept its outcome, even though they have made it clear that they would favour unity.
Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since a coup in 1989 brought him to power as a young military officer, probably had little choice but to agree to respect the outcome of the vote, after being railroaded into signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, which paved the way for the referendum.
But few others in the north seem to have given much thought to the fact that, come January 9, Khartoum may lose control not only of a large chunk of the country but also of the revenue that the south’s oil reserves continues to generate.
Reliable oil data is notoriously hard to come by, but petroleum giant BP estimates that Sudan produces half a million barrels of oil a day, with more than 80 per cent coming from the south.
The revenue from this oil has fuelled an economic boom in north Sudan, but little seems to have trickled down to the south.
Not only has this created resentment among southerners, it has also thrown into doubt the question of whether Khartoum is really taking the south’s bid for succession seriously.
The danger isn’t so much about whether Khartoum is actively trying to frustrate the referendum process. It is about the perception among southerners of what is happening in the north – and here the government must tread very carefully, if they do not want to see a return to bloodshed.
The hazards of Khartoum’s state of denial regarding the referendum must not be underestimated. Expectations are now so high in South Sudan that any suggestion Khartoum is trying to frustrate the process could result in violence and even full-blown war.
South Sudan’s vice-president, Riek Machar, says that Khartoum should give a clear indication that it is prepared to accept the will of the people in the south, since this is in their best interests.
“Khartoum wants the resources in the south, but they know that using sheer force might not be the best way of getting what they want,” Machar told IWPR. “For example, it would be better for them to have a co-operation agreement with us. Oil is already flowing northwards to the Red Sea, and all the [oil] refineries are in the north. It makes sense [for both sides] to continue this arrangement.”
Machar remains optimistic that Khartoum will see the sense of cooperation with the south.
“We have had experience of war since 1955,” he said. “Both sides have lost countless lives. There is a general fatigue of fighting. If the south votes for independence, and the north doesn’t let them go, then this will create war. And what would either side gain?”
Despite his certainty that the north will play ball, Machar reserves a veiled threat for what will happen if they don’t.
“The south is now stronger than at any time since independence,” he said. “It is quite conceivable that we could turn around and announce that we are going to build a pipeline in any direction. It could go to Ethiopia – to Djibouti or Asab – or it could go to the Indian Ocean, through Kenya. It could even go to the Atlantic ocean. But would that be economical for either the north or the south?”
Two years ago, it seemed inconceivable that Khartoum would ever entertain the notion of cutting the south free.
But last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, PCA, an international body based in The Hague which takes decisions in cases where parties are otherwise unable to reach an agreement, came up with a surprise decision: two large oil fields, which had been part of the southern province of Abyei, would be reassigned to the north.
Abyei is due to hold its own referendum on January 9, when it will decide whether it wants to stick with the south or become part of the north.
At the time, the decision of the PCA was seen as an important attempt to diffuse a potentially volatile situation, but since then there has been only limited progress on implementing the ruling.
“There is still no demarcation,” said Douglas Johnson, an academic who has advised the government on the boundaries between northern and southern Sudan. “We’ve had a whole dry season [since the PCA decision] where we could have had demarcation very quickly, but this still hasn’t happened.”
Those living in Abyei report that although fighting in the region has now stopped, the situation remains tense.
“We are worried that violence could return,” Deng Majok, Abyei’s paramount chief, said. “We know that the Misseriya are gathering on the north-eastern border [of Abyei], but we don’t know what they are intending to do.”
The Misseriya, a nomadic tribe of cattle-herders, have reportedly been used by the Sudanese government to stir up trouble in the past – a claim Khartoum strongly refutes.
The PCA’s ruling in 2009 provided a valuable window of opportunity for Sudan to escape the horrors of the past, by making southern secession less objectionable to the north.
Khartoum may yet conclude that separation is far less bothersome than trying to hang on to a bunch of former revolutionaries.
But, for many in Khartoum, which has largely managed to avoid the direct consequences of war, the importance of the referendum for those in the south is not properly understood.
The Sudanese government has a history of using delaying tactics. Khartoum was heavily criticised for postponing national elections twice, which eventually took place in April. In Darfur, they held up action on resolving the crisis until they were forced to act by the international community.
If the same approach is used with South Sudan, the whole situation could explode.
Khartoum must make it crystal clear that it will not stand in the way of a free and fair vote on January 9. The consequences of ambiguity could be terrible.
Blake Evans-Pritchard is IWPR’s Africa editor