South Sudan set to declare independence in July

Before the southern government in Juba can lower the flag of Sudan and raise its own, however, an array of issues must be addressed, particularly over relations with the North.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (R) is welcomed by southern leader Salva Kiir (C) at Juba International airport on January 4, 2010. Southerners are set to vote in a referendum on January 9 on whether to remain united with the north or break away and form their own country and the president told them in a speech in the southern capital that he would celebrate the result of this week's referendum on southern independence, "even if you choose secession."AFP PHOTO/YASUYOSHI CHIBA
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JUBA // Now that the first official results of Southern Sudan's self-determination vote have been announced, the region will probably declare independence in July.

In less than six months, Africa's largest nation will split in two. Before the southern government in Juba can lower the flag of Sudan and raise its own, however, an array of issues must be addressed.

The most challenging of these for the south's ruling party are linked to its relations with the National Congress Party (NCP), which rules Northern Sudan. The two sides signed a peace deal in 2005 that, among other things, called for the self-determination vote for the south six years later.

Now that the referendum is over, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south and President Omar Bashir's NCP in Khartoum must hammer out issues before the peace deal expires on July 9, the same date the south will declare independence.

The southern leader, Salva Kiir, in his speech on Sunday after the announcement of preliminary referendum results, thanked the Sudanese president for his efforts to "make peace possible".

Early last summer, when preparations for the referendum had stalled because of disagreements between Khartoum and Juba, acceptance by Khartoum of the south's independence vote did not seem possible.

The southern territory contains most of the country's oil reserves, ample resources including minerals and vast tracts of fertile land. Losing the south is a bitter pill for Mr Bashir and his party to swallow.

Just how acrimonious the split will be depends on how north-south negotiations progress over wealth-sharing, rights to the White Nile River, citizenship of minority populations - such as southerners in the north - and where to set borders between the two regions.

Last week, Mr Bashir and Mr Kiir met in Khartoum with the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who heads the African Union's mediation efforts in Sudan. The presidents resolved to continue attempting to reach an agreement on the future of the volatile border of Abyei, which analysts see as the one issue that could provoke a north-south conflict.

Mr Kiir and his party have their hands full navigating the course towards establishing a sovereign government that will not be continually under siege by southerners who feel alienated by the Juba leadership.

The insurrections in several strategic areas across the south after the disputed elections last April have not yet been resolved. The overriding priority for southerners of getting their independence vote on time did merit a brief hiatus from violent attacks by the southern rebels, but now that the vote has passed, the underlying grievances that caused the revolts may well come to the fore again.

Last week, when Mr Kiir spoke at the opening of the southern parliament in Juba, he angered opposition leaders by announcing the make-up of a committee to review the south's interim constitution. Those appointed were nearly all members of the ruling party, and the decision flew in the face of the rhetoric of late last year, when Mr Kiir pledged to start a "south-south dialogue".