Searching for reasons to be cheerful in Sudan

Only the most foolhardy commentator would dare to say anything optimistic about the coming year in Sudan, four months away from highly charged elections and 12 months from an explosive referendum on southern independence.

So here goes — five reasons why Africa’s largest country might just manage to reach January 2011 without a return to catastrophe and bloody civil war, despite the worst predictions of most pundits.

Often the cause of conflict, oil could end up helping to prevent it in Sudan. The country’s oil industry, as it currently stands, only works when north and south Sudan work together. The south has most of the known oil reserves while the north has all of the infrastructure — from pipelines to refineries to a sea port. Talk of a southern refinery and an alternative pipeline route to the sea via Kenya are currently “pie in the sky”, one diplomat told me.Both sides may choose to fight it out over contested border oilfields after the widely expected “yes” vote for southern independence, thereby disrupting oil flows and scaring off investors. But it would be much more profitable for all concerned to work out a revenue sharing scheme and live side by side as business partners. The south’s government gets up to 98 percent of its revenues from oil sales so would struggle to survive without some kind of deal.

Talks and process
The scariest times since north and south Sudan ended their last civil war with a 2005 peace deal have come when northern and southern leaders stopped talking to each other.Since a breakthrough in negotiations over key legislation late last year, officials from both sides are currently holding almost daily face-to-face meetings. Many of those meetings are focusing on preparing for the elections and referendum.

Low expectations
The International Crisis Group issued a downbeat report saying both the north’s dominant National Congress Party (NCP) and the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were interested in the elections “for the wrong reasons”.The NCP wanted to establish its political legitimacy, to counter the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against its leader President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over war crimes in Darfur, it said. And the SPLM wanted to tick off the election to get through to the next stage in the peace process, the prized referendum.But those limited aspirations might not be such a bad thing, if you are more interested in Sudan getting through its elections peacefully then having a technically perfect poll. If the NCP and the SPLM get what they want, they might have the clout to push Sudan through its tricky election period, steamrollering over already-mounting opposition complaints of vote fraud.

External pressure
External players in Sudan — among them China, Middle Eastern investors, and the United States — will use what influence they have to press for stability, for a mixture of humanitarian and commercial reasons.The 1983-2005 north-south civil war festered for so long partly because the rest of the world ignored it for so long. This time, thanks to other factors like the separate Darfur conflict, the world is watching Sudan closely.

War fatigue
The biggest hope for peace is that both sides will remember the cost of the last civil war — an estimated 2 million killed, 4 million forced to flee — and decide that nothing is worth a return to that level of bloodshed.

On other fronts, the Darfur conflict seems to be dying down, with peace talks scheduled for January. A surge of tribal violence in the south has so far not sparked any fighting north of the border.

The mainstream view remains that Sudan is heading towards disaster.

“A lethal cocktail of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions has left the peace deal on the brink of collapse,” warned ten aid groups in a report on Thursday. “Sudan is sliding towards violent breakup, and time is running out,” said the International Crisis Group in December. International efforts to “prevent all-out war in Sudan are failing,” said the U.S.-based Enough Project soon after.

But another oft-repeated truism about Sudan is its ability to come up with the unexpected, to catch even the mot seasoned “Sudan expert” by surprise.

So, might the most unexpected — and therefore the most truly Sudanese — outcome of the next 12 months be flawed but grudgingly-accepted elections, followed by a painful but grudgingly-accepted separation? What happens in the 12 months after that, of course, is another question. What do you think?

Originally published on Reuters Africa blog

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