Sudan: Referendum agreements signed but obstacles to peace lie ahead

News and Press Release
Originally published
KHARTOUM, 16 December 2009 (IRIN) - The latest agreements reached by Sudan's former foes leave much work ahead to ensure their 2005 peace accord holds and to avoid a reversion to full-scale hostilities, say observers.

On 13 December, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), a former rebel group that now governs the territory of Southern Sudan, and the National Congress Party (NCP), in power in the north, ironed out major differences, principally over the details of a 2011 referendum on whether the south will secede or form a united Sudan.

"Whatever they have agreed on is definitely the first step of a breakthrough. The two sides were not talking to each other and were not accepting each other. Now they are communicating," Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN on 16 December.

"However, how they are going to move forward with the details . remains to be seen. Let's wait and see."

That opinion was shared by John Ashworth, regional representative of the IKV Pax Christi Horn of Africa Programme, who said: "Whenever the NCP agrees on anything, the agreement is useless until we see whether they will follow-through."

"The international community should keep up the pressure on the NCP and SPLM to make sure they honour their agreements," added Ashworth.

If the agreements, which also cover the powder-keg region of Abyei, are not implemented, "in the short term we will see more unrest and political demonstrations. In the long term, the resumption of war is a very high possibility if the referendum [does] not happen," Ashworth said.

An impasse over referendum laws led SPLM legislators to boycott parliament for almost two months, while senior members of the party were earlier this month briefly detained in Khartoum during street protests held to push for democratic reforms.

Quick action urged

The Special Representative in Sudan of the UN Secretary-General, Ashral Jehengir Qazi, also stressed the need to "implement the legislation with all due haste" and called on Sudan's Government of National Unity to "move as quickly as possible to appoint both the Southern and Abyei Referendum Commissions", according to a statement by the UN Mission in Sudan.

"The road ahead may be long, but this major step forward should make the journey easier," said Qazi.

Despite the latest agreement, relations between north and south are still characterized by mistrust, especially over the south's long-sought demand to have a greater, if not total, say in the running of its own affairs.

"These self-determination rights were being obstructed by the NCP, not because they care for the unity of Sudan, but rather because they wanted to control the whole of Sudan with the aim of having access to the resources, particularly in the south," SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum told IRIN.

Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Southern Sudan receives 50 percent of the revenues generated from oil produced from its territory, where most of the country's oil fields are located.

"I don't think that it will return back to war. but if the people of Southern Sudan vote for separation and the NCP says no. [and] they proceed to occupy the oil areas, there will be a return to war," Amum said.

For its part, the ruling party in Khartoum insisted blame for the prolonged disputes over the referendum should be shared.

"The delay in reaching an agreement was because of both parties, not because of the NCP alone," NCP official Rabie Abdel Ati told IRIN.

"All decisions and agreements were taken in committees comprising the two partners together. The NCP was not making decisions on its own in those talks," he said.

Key points of the deal:

Southern secession permitted if 51% of voters support independence

Turnout of 60% of voters required

Khartoum had previously insisted on 75% voter turnout

Finer details still to be ironed out.