NAIROBI // Sudan is at a crossroads and perhaps no one knows this better than John Paguir. As the undersecretary for trade in the government of Southern Sudan, Mr Paguir's job is to attract foreign investment in the aspiring nation. But with tensions mounting between north and south Sudan, a shaky start to an independence referendum and continued conflict in the western Darfur region, this may not be the ideal time to invest anywhere in Sudan.
The unsure fate of Southern Sudan - whether it votes for independence or if the referendum even happens in January as scheduled - as well as that of the rest of Sudan makes Mr Paguir's job difficult. "It would be much better for investment if Southern Sudan becomes independent," he said in a recent interview. "We have resources, yes, but we need to bring investors to develop our land. There is fear. Some say they will wait until after 2011."
The next five months will be perhaps the most critical period in the recent history of Sudan, Africa's largest country by land mass and home to 42 million people. The oil-producing south is careening towards a Jan 9 referendum on independence. This is the last step in a 2005 peace deal that ended the country's 20-year civil war between the Muslim north and Christian south. A member of the referendum committee said last week that the vote should be delayed, which sparked a backlash from southern leaders who have staked their political careers on delivering independence for the south.
"The time that is remaining is not enough to hold a referendum," Tarek Osman al Taher said. "We at the commission will begin the necessary measures to try to hold the referendum on time but we must warn the partners that there is not enough time." Several issues need to be resolved before the vote including the demarcation of the border and division of oil revenues between the north and south. There is also the task of organising a free and fair referendum across an underdeveloped region that still sees flare-ups of tribal violence. A presidential election in April was mostly peaceful but was plagued with technical problems in the south. Juba, the southern capital, has little infrastructure and is ill-prepared to be the capital of an independent nation, according to many westerners who live there.
A delay in the referendum would be a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war, southern leaders warned. "Any proposal to postpone the referendum will be considered a violation of the CPA and would be a threat to the entire peace process," Pagan Amum, peace minister in the southern government, told reporters in Juba. He added that Southern Sudan would have "other mechanisms to exercise its right to self-determination in the event of any attempt to put off or create obstacles to this referendum".
Leaders from the north and south began last week to meet to resolve issues of citizenship, currency and international treaties the south would join if it votes for independence. "Action at the political level to resolve these outstanding questions without further delay is clearly now of the utmost importance," said Derek Plumbly, head of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission, a Sudanese commission tasked with implementing the peace agreement.
Even if Southern Sudan votes for separation, as most analysts believe will happen, and the process goes smoothly, Khartoum will still be left with a lingering conflict in the western Darfur region. The war between Arab nomads and African tribes over scarce resources has killed about 300,000 people since 2003, according to the United Nations. The International Criminal Court has indicted Omar al Bashir, the Sudanese president, for genocide.
With most of the villages in the vast arid region razed, many Darfuris live in packed, squalid camps near big cities. Last week, Sudan barred aid groups from some of the largest Darfur camps because of clashes between groups in the camps that are divided over the peace process. Khartoum has been accused using aid as a political tool and withholding the much-needed assistance in order to punish certain groups.
Advocacy groups warned that Southern Sudan's referendum and the north-south issues are taking the international community's attention away from the Darfur conflict, even as violence there surges. "The US and other key countries have largely turned away from serious political engagement in Darfur in favour of the north-south issues," said John Prendergast, co-founder of The Enough Project, an advocacy group. "By not focusing on an all-Sudan solution, they end up with no solution at all, and the crises bleed on."