Sudan’s Other Crisis

May 3, 2010
One year after the International Criminal Court accused Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of war crimes for the genocidal rampage in Darfur, he was re-elected in a blatantly manipulated election.

Mr. Bashir has no legitimacy and he must stand trial for his crimes. But those facts must not divert the world’s attention from another potential crisis: the very real danger of renewed civil war between Arab Muslim northern Sudan and the south, which is largely Christian and animist. The last conflict — from 1983 to 2005 — left about two million people dead.

Under a United States-backed peace agreement, the semi-autonomous southern region will hold a referendum in January to decide its future. Voters are expected to choose independence. Leaders in both the north and the south pledged to respect the results. But there is so much oil involved that they can’t be depended on to keep their word — without strong encouragement from the United States and other major players.

Southern Sudan produces most of the country’s oil. Mr. Bashir and his cronies are unlikely to give that up easily. Meanwhile, leaders in the south are likely to resist giving up the oil-rich border area of Abyei if it votes separately to join the north. All sides need to understand that this isn’t a zero sum game. The oil now gets to market via a pipeline through the north to Port Sudan. Khartoum could continue to share the benefits with a long-term contract under which the south would pay royalties to use the pipeline. And the south needs the pipeline and stability to keep pumping that oil.

Washington, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and China, which has growing investments in Sudan, must press both sides to ensure a fair and free referendum and to honor the voters’ verdict. They must make it clear — firmly and often — that renewed violence is not the answer.

Last year, the Obama administration replaced a punishment-heavy approach toward Sudan with one that includes some incentives, although officials continue to debate the right mix. What is most needed is sustained attention, and pressure, in this critical period.

There are still a lot of unresolved issues that need to be settled now — including border demarcation, water rights and the status of citizens on both sides of the border. Those will prove even more volatile if left hanging until after the vote.

Washington is sending more diplomats to southern Sudan. They have a lot of work to do — and not a lot of time — to help the leaders there improve their ability to govern and promote the rule of law. Otherwise, the desperately impoverished region runs the risk of becoming a failed state the day it is born.

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