Roger Middleton
(Former Chatham House Expert)

If the people of Southern Sudan opt for independence in Sunday's referendum a new state will emerge. It will be one of the poorest in the world, and will sit in a highly volatile region and face substantial challenges in lifting its people out of poverty.

The vote on independence comes after a six year transitional period following decades of civil war between north and south, and is the culmination of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 between the Sudanese government and the southern based Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) that ended the conflict. The CPA aimed to reshape Sudan by empowering marginalised peripheries - especially the South - and make unity attractive. But now even senior northern politicians expect the South to opt for independence.

The New Relationship

The first hurdle will be ensuring that the result of the referendum is respected. Although many African governments are uncomfortable with the secession of Southern Sudan, seeing it as a potentially slippery slope to redrawing boundaries inherited at independence, acceptance of a fairly conducted vote on independence is a step to ensure a smooth transition. Southerners expect independence and will balk at any attempts to deny them recognition.

The mechanics of how a border will work, respecting grazing rights of communities who have long crossed the border, and ensuring reasonable citizenship rights for Southerners who live in the north and Northerners who live in the south are some of the issues that will dominate the new relationship in its first years.

The oil reserves in Southern Sudan reach the international market through a pipeline running across Northern Sudan. The revenue from this oil is vital for both governments and demonstrates that Southern and Northern Sudan will continue to be bound together and interdependent even if Southern Sudan becomes independent.

Regional Warnings

Regional history warns of the potential dangers for a new state. The high hopes that accompanied Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia in 1993 disappeared with the devastating border war between the two countries during 1998-2000. Renewed war between Khartoum and Juba would lead to a military and humanitarian crisis that would dwarf what has been seen in Darfur. Both north and south Sudan have large conventional armies, and with networks of support across North and East Africa the danger of a conflict drawing in neighbours is high.

When Eritrea became independent, the hope was that supposedly good relations between political leaders in Eritrea and Ethiopia forged in a common struggle would create a partnership able to amicably settle any outstanding issues. This did not prove to be the case. In Sudan the expectation is more pragmatic. And although President Omar al-Bashir and Vice-President Salva Kiir have a good working relationship, no-one is relying on it to avert future conflict. An open and frank discussion of the challenges ahead and the workings of the new relationship is essential.

A Moment in History

Southern Sudan will need good friends as it emerges, but the problems that will face the rest of Sudan as it adjusts to a new situation must not be ignored. Sudan - minus the South - will also need to adapt to a post-CPA future and find ways to accommodate the competing demands of its regions and political factions, not least those areas with strong support for the SPLM that will remain in the North. Khartoum has been encouraged by the United States, and others, to support the referendum. In return they will expect greater international acceptance. But with the ICC indictment against President Bashir western governments will have to tread carefully.

The arrival of a new state presents enormous challenges to Sudan, North and South, its neighbours and the wider international community who already bear the costs of the UN mission in Sudan and would be obliged to assume massive humanitarian responsibilities in the event of a return to war. Southern Sudanese hope that, whichever way the referendum goes, when they decide the future of their homeland on Sunday the new situation will cement the peace of the last six years and provide the chance to develop one of the poorest parts of the world.

More resources on Sudan's referendum