On Sunday, the people of Southern Sudan will vote in a referendum to decide whether Africa's biggest country should split in two. All the analysis points to an overwhelming "yes" to independence for the South, because of the potential that secession offers for peace, security and reconciliation after decades of warfare.
Gloomsters warn of "ticking clocks" and impending chaos and conflict. But in Southern Sudan there is talk of a "final walk to freedom" and abundant evidence of an optimistic determination amongst a people who know that they face formidable, but not insuperable, difficulties. Their resources have been exploited. They have been denied their cultural and religious rights.
But, as I have seen on several visits to both the North and South over the past 20 years, there is a vibrancy and a resilience which has always sustained the Sudanese. Violence was widely – and wrongly – predicted in the Sudanese elections last year. In reality, the results were generally, if grudgingly, accepted. Similarly, it is likely that the result of the referendum will be accepted, even if there are strong reservations, because the population is desperate for peace and stability.
It has to be acknowledged of course, that there is a high risk of fighting in the border areas and this must be contained. The danger is that militias and non-state armed groups in the contested areas could launch attacks which could provoke intervention from security forces from either the North or the South. There is already a complex humanitarian emergency in Sudan which is exacerbated by the thousands of returnees flooding in before the vote.
A new government in Juba, capital of what will become the new nation of South Sudan, will also need to focus urgently on establishing the rule of law and on building democratic structures. Long-term funding for the new state's health and education systems will be required. The African Union, the countries of the region and the international community must give practical backing to the nation-building process. At the same time, they must also remain vigilant about the North, including the unresolved conflict in Darfur.
As guarantors of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the civil war between North and South, Britain, the EU, the US and China will need to prioritise peace and security, and all our political economic engagement post-referendum will have to be sensitive to current and future potential tensions.
Pressing issues need to be tackled and resolved – chief among them citizenship rights, finance and, above all, an oil wealth-sharing deal with appropriate guarantees and timescales. Such a deal should not be beyond the wit of negotiators. The South, after all, depends on oil sales for 98 per cent of its revenue, and the North has all of the pipelines, refineries and the seaport. The oil industry will deliver benefits to both Sudanese nations only if they work together on a shared business basis. The UK and others will need to exert external pressure on this and on other disputed areas of concern.
Yet, whilst recognising the risks, including those arising from the brinkmanship which leaders on both sides continue to engage in, now is not the time to wring our hands and despair about the future of the new South Sudan. Neither is it the time to step back from strong and committed engagement with a people who, after all, have little or no experience of political freedom or participatory democracy.
The long-suffering Sudanese people need schools for their children and food on their tables. There are many potential flashpoints, but we can acknowledge them, while also accepting that the opportunity to secure enduring peace is within sight.
The writer chairs the Associate Parliamentary Group for Sudan and is the shadow Lords spokesperson on international development
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