Delaying the referendum on independence in Southern Sudan would risk resumption of civil war, the head of the region’s government said, even as the U.S. suggested it will be hard to organize a credible vote on Jan. 9.
“We see this timing as sacred,” Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan and first vice president of Sudan, said yesterday at the International Peace Institute in New York. “There is a risk of a return to war in case of delay or denial of this exercise, and it would be on a very massive scale.”
The vote is a key component of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war between the Muslim north and the oil-producing south, which follows Christianity and traditional beliefs. About 2 million people died in the conflict and more than 4 million were displaced.
“There remains an enormous amount to be done and work must be accelerated to make up for lost time,” the U.S., Britain and Norway said in a joint statement on Sept. 21.
Kiir said the government of Southern Sudan needs more money to hire workers to conduct the balloting, United Nations and U.S. assistance to carry it off successfully, and helicopters to distribute voting materials throughout the region.
“I assure you my government has committed itself to conducting a free and fair vote in all areas,” Kiir said. “It is in our interests to see that the balloting goes smoothly.”
The vote, and peaceful implementation of the outcome, will be the subject of a summit called by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tomorrow that President Barack Obama will attend. In advance of the meeting, Ban named a three-person panel to monitor preparations for the referendum, to be led by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
Obama decided to attend the meeting because “this could not be a more crucial time in the life of Sudan and also in the life of international affairs to ensure that the referendum goes off on time and peacefully,” Samantha Power, the administration’s senior director of multilateral affairs, told reporters on Sept. 20.
“This is an event that will show that the world is united and that the parties need to move very, very briskly and responsibly to ensure that these votes take place on time,” Power said.
The referendum was also the subject of a Sept. 21 meeting in New York of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha.
“There was an agreement that there’s no time to waste; there’s a lot to be done,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said.
The U.S. threatened earlier this month to impose additional sanctions on Sudan if the government fails to make headway on a formal peace agreement with the South. Sudan, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, has been subject to American economic sanctions since 1997.
“Vice President Taha was very direct,” Crowley said. “There were some things that Sudan wants to get out of its future relations with the United States, and the secretary made clear that the door to improved negotiation, improved relations with the United States, will open depending on Khartoum’s cooperation.”
Kiir said Southern Sudan was determined to negotiate agreements on oil, citizenship, borders and payment of $35 billion in national debts, but that the referendum has to go forward regardless of whether accords are reached before January.
“We have fought enough,” he said. “We have seen war is no good. We are genuinely willing to negotiate with our brothers in the North. It is in our interest that the North remains a viable state. But it is unfair to expect Southern Sudan to make all the compromises, that we should be expected to buy our freedom.”