President Barack Obama urged Sudan to hold a peaceful referendum on schedule, warning the largest country in Africa that millions of lives would be affected by the outcome.
“What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether a people who have endured too much war move towards peace or slip backwards into bloodshed,” Obama said yesterday at a United Nations ministerial meeting on Sudan in New York. “What happens to Sudan matters to all of sub-Saharan Africa and it matters to the world.”
Obama weighed in on a conflict that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as “‘a ticking time bomb.’’ The biggest concern is that Sudan may plunge back into a violent civil war if there are delays to a planned Jan. 9 independence vote that would split the oil-rich south from the Muslim north.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reinforced Obama’s message on a timely referendum, calling for a vote that must be ‘‘peaceful’’ and ‘‘free of intimidation.’’
The president will be seeking to build on the efforts of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who helped broker a 2005 peace agreement ending a 21-year conflict that left 2 million dead and displaced more than 4 million. As many as 1.5 million southern Sudanese now live in northern Sudan. The agreement called for a referendum and for north and south to share Sudan’s oil reserves.
‘‘Both southerners in the north and northerners living in Southern Sudan told Human Rights Watch that they feared retaliation, even expulsion, if secession were approved,’’ the New-York based Human Rights Watch said on Sept. 22.
In the lead-up to the referendum, the U.S. has brought in former Ambassador Princeton Lyman to help Scott Gration, the special envoy to Sudan. For its part, the UN has formed a three- member panel, led by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, to monitor the vote.
The two regions already co-exist in the national government. President Umar al-Bashir runs Sudan from the capital of Khartoum, while the leader of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, is vice president and based in Juba. Southern Sudan borders Ethiopia, a major U.S. ally in Africa.
Leaders from both Sudanese regions reiterated their commitment to a lasting peace while recognizing that negotiations were at a delicate stage. Vice President Ali Osman Taha, standing in for al-Bashir, said ‘‘the long-winding road has reached a critical juncture’’ while vowing his government would accept the outcome of the referendum.
‘‘It is up to all of us to ensure the vote is carried out without delay and division,’’ said Kiir, who is also president of Southern Sudan. ‘‘We need help.’’
One contentious point is how the two sides will share the oil wealth. Oil fields in Southern Sudan account for most of the nation’s crude output, which, at 490,000 barrels a day, is the third-biggest in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. China is the major buyer of Sudanese crude.
The U.S. has pursued a carrot-and-stick tactic to try and keep peace talks on track, alternating threats of additional sanctions with promises to invest in non-oil industries and resume diplomatic relations if the transition runs smoothly.
Sudan, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, has been subject to American economic sanctions since 1997.
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