Sunday, October 24, 2010

I'll believe it when I see it

This should be good news: At the end of a three-day visit to Sudan during which he met with senior officials, Sen. John Kerry said that those officials
assured him that they are committed to holding a referendum on southern independence on time. ...

[Kerry] says Sudan's leaders "are absolutely committed" to making the Jan. 9 referendum take place as planned.

The vote will decide whether the south will split from the north and become an independent state.

Kerry told reporters Sunday the U.S. is committed to playing a "positive role" in ensuring a peaceful outcome to the vote.
Yes, that should be good news, as it is part of implementing a peace pact putting an end to a civil war that lasted over 20 years and saw 2 million dead and 4 million driven from their homes. But the truth is, I can't be too enthusiastic just yet.

I had a few posts on the progress of the peace talks that eventually lead to this point. There was the early optimism in December 2003 that a deal was possible. Then there was an actual outline of a deal in May 2004, the heart of which was that the south, which is largely Christian and animist, would be autonomous for six years, including with its own monetary system, with a vote on independence to come at the end of that time. That is the vote now scheduled for January. Meanwhile, the largely Muslim north would continue to be ruled under Sharia law.

It took more than six months to turn that outline into a preliminary accord, but it was done and in January 2005 the deal was signed.

Then came the crashing of hopes that June when the leading figure among the southern rebels, who under the pact had become vice-president, was killed in a helicopter crash. Things have been on a knife edge since with the risk of incidents leading to renewed civil war ever present. Oddly but still understandably, a clash in May 2008 in an important oil-rich area coveted so much by both sides that under the preliminary accord it is guarded by joint patrols, was seen as something of a blessing in disguise - because it did not lead to more general fighting. People, it seemed, really were tired of war.

So here we sit, months away from a referendum that could well lead to a final resolution. There are still issues outstanding, including the status of that oil-rich region straddling the northern and southern regions, but there always are in such cases until the very end. So why am I not as enthusiastic as might be expected?

One big reason is that quite bluntly I do not trust Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In Darfur, he proved himself a master at
the compromise-and-stall game: Hold out until the pressure is too much, then "compromise" to take the heat off - and promptly forget about it once people look the other way.
In fact, a couple of years ago I noted seven times he had pulled that off over the preceding three years.

And now? This is from al-Jazeera for October 10:
Sudan's president has accused the country's southern autonomous leadership of breaching terms of a peace deal, warning that a conflict could re-erupt if the two sides did not settle disputes before a referendum on the south's secession, state media reported. ...

[Omar Hassan al-]Bashir said he was still committed to holding the vote on the south's independence, which is set to take place on January 9, but insisted both sides first had to settle differences over the position of their shared border and how to share oil, debt and Nile river water.

"He [Bashir] said a new conflict between the north and south will ensue if there was a failure to address these issues before the referendum and that such a conflict could be more dangerous than the one that took place before the peace agreement," Suna reported, referring to a speech Bashir gave on Saturday.
What's more, according to the VOA,
Mr. Bashir's foreign minister has suggested the government could reject the referendum results if it sees "interference" in the vote.
The south is strongly expected to vote for independence in the referendum. So it certainly appears that Bashir is positioning himself to be able to refuse to accept the outcome unless he gets what he wants on the outstanding issues.

Bashir doesn't have nearly as much wiggle room here as he did with Darfur, but the bottom line remains: As much as I hope this comes off the way it's supposed to, I will believe it when I see it. And not a moment before.

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