Edward Thomas: Ruling elites hold key to curbing strife

The alliance is structured around oil - extracted from the south, piped and sold from the north

All of Sudan's political actors are looking to the coming year of big decisions and deadlines that will mark the end of the interim period charted by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005.

President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) has shared power with the southern-based former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) since then: an unlikely alliance that ended a brutal civil war. It was resilient enough to survive the death of the powerful and charismatic SPLM leader John Garang, and the indictment of President Bashir.

For many members of Sudan's ruling elites, that alliance may hold the key to limiting violence in Sudan, whose local conflicts are tied into the politics of its unstable neighbours, and of the weak but fierce central state. Diplomats share this view, and are investing in ways of keeping the coalition partners talking.

The alliance is structured around oil – largely extracted from the South; piped and sold from the North. The SPLM and NCP can more or less keep each other in power if they share the oil between themselves, and that is the structural reason why both parties could do a deal which allows the referendum to go ahead – allowing southern voters to get their chance to leave the north – with a minimum of violence and with mutually acceptable terms of divorce. It's hard to think of a peaceful alternative to an SPLM-NCP deal, and for that reason it's something that many wish for. But not everybody wishes for it.

The "terms of the divorce" involve negotiations on currency, nationality, security, Nile waters – all much more complex issues than the procedural law on the referendum that has taken a year of fractious negotiation to agree. Reaching these deals will consume much political energy, and elites may neglect or bargain away pressing problems, such as peace in Darfur, for their sake.

And elite deal-making in the last year of the CPA will maintain the kind of exclusionary politics that has cut off Sudanese state elites from its people. Sudan's two elites need to find a way of working together that will resolve their problems, and simultaneously open up to new constituencies, if they are to turn the country away from violence.

The writer is the author of a forthcoming Chatham House report, "Decisions and deadlines: a critical year for Sudan"