Any Good News Today from South Sudan?

JUBA, Sudan—The sun was setting at the standard Equatorial time of just after 7pm, and I was bumping along a potholed road with my trusted motorcycle taxi.  Another day in Juba beginning to draw to a close. Then, my driver Issa said to me over his shoulder, “Do you have any good news from today?” This is not the first time in the 11 months that I have known Issa that he has said something to me that has struck me as powerful, insightful, or simply startling in its honesty. Since I changed jobs last month and became a journalist, Issa has begun asking me about my reporting almost every day. He’s curious about the status of the high-level political negotiations that will partly dictate the future of Sudan and relations between the country’s north and south. He’s worried about insecurity along the north-south border because he heard things were getting tense in the Abyei region; he knows the people of Abyei are worried they are not going to get their referendum. He wonders why the army has deployed more security resources to the bridge in Juba across the Nile. When he hears something on BBC or from his fellow boda driver friends, he often asks me if I’ve heard the same things. So it wasn’t very unusual for Issa to ask me about the news on that recent evening, but something about the way he said it made me realize that I had very little good news to report to him.

Post-referendum negotiations between the National Congress Party in Khartoum and the South’s ruling SPLM are moving forward quietly on some fronts, while the most contentious aspects of these discussions—related to post-referendum wealth-sharing and citizenship rights—aren’t likely to see progress any time soon, given that both sides will need to cede ground they aren’t willing to give up in order to reach agreements. Meanwhile, with the southern and Abyei referenda just over four months away, voter registration is not yet in sight given the delays in appoint the secretary-general of the southern referendum commission. 

The commission for the separate Abyei vote has not yet been formed due to political deadlock between the parties. I could go on, but these are just a few of the challenges plaguing the holding of a peaceful and credible referendum in January. I have no qualms in saying that it seems likely that one of the two parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is responsible for mounting the bulk of the obstacles currently blocking progress toward holding the two referenda votes. This party has historical, existential, political, and strategic reasons for seeing these votes obstructed. Referring to the political dispute over the north-south border, the latest International Crisis Groups report notes that “strategic motives have…been behind NCP delays past and present” in demarcating this contested border. This is arguably the most contested outstanding element of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement aside from the southern referendum itself.  

I hope that the record will show that lack of political will, and good will in general, of one of these two parties has stymied implementation of the peace accord since it was signed in 2005. Moreover, this lack of will could hinder the ability of the Southern Sudanese to exercise their internationally-recognized right to determine their political destiny on January 9, 2011.