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Former Sudan envoy Danforth foresees difficulties in secession

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 12, 2011 - WASHINGTON - The widely expected outcome of this week's referendum in southern Sudan -- a vote for independence -- is likely to represent just the start of "a very long, hard row to hoe" to transform the problem-plagued region into a viable nation.

That's the view of former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, who as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan from 2001 to 2004 helped negotiate the Sudan peace agreement that has now led to the secession vote that began Sunday and will end this weekend. A turnout of at least 60 percent of the region's 3.8 million voters is required to validate the referendum.

Asserting that a vote for independence is "a foregone conclusion," Danforth told the Beacon in a telephone interview this week that the process of the proposed new Texas-sized country seceding from Africa's largest nation -- the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River -- will be difficult and fraught with danger at many turns.

"I'm apprehensive," Danforth said. "First of all, does President Bashir mean it" when he pledges to respect the referendum's results, "or does this mean there's going to be another civil war? That's the worst that can happen."

Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has promised to respect the outcome of a valid vote and support the south if its people choose independence. However, he told the Middle Eastern news organization Al Jazeera last week that secession may not resolve the many issues facing the south.

"The stability of the south is very important to us because any instability in the south will have an impact on the north," al-Bashir told Al-Jazeera. "The south suffers from many problems. It's been at war since 1959. The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority."

Danforth said he hopes that "President Bashir meant it when he said that he would respect the results of the referendum. But they have a very hard, long row to hoe if they vote to create a separate country. ... This is going to be a very poor, landlocked country with some oil under the ground but no way to get it out" to ports.

Danforth, who left his post as U.S. envoy to Sudan in July 2004 to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said "it's going to be a challenge" for southern Sudan's leaders to "work out some sort of detente with the government of Sudan." But even if such an agreement can be negotiated during the transition period, he said the new country will face severe challenges, including:

  • Solving its own internal conflicts, with various ethnicities and clans that have engaged for years in tribal clashes, cattle raiding and other disputes. "Will the South continue to keep itself glued together?" asked Danforth. "The South has internal ethnic problems of its own. It's not just Arab Africa versus black Africa. There's a long history of fighting" among rival tribal groups.
  • Organizing a new government and getting financial support to build a new nation. "How do they develop the country?" Danforth asked. "They're going to need a lot of international support and attention."
  • Finding ways to exploit southern Sudan's oil reserves without its own seaport and reaching agreement with Sudan on oil revenue. Danforth said he hopes that "something will be worked out with the government of Sudan about oil revenue and getting the oil piped out of the new country."

"All of these are very hard problems," said Danforth, who was named to the position of envoy to Sudan by former President George W. Bush on Sept. 6, 2001. In the first few years, Danforth said, he and rebel leader John Garang de Mabior -- who headed the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement -- had both hoped that a way could be found to preserve Sudan as a unified country.
"That was my hope. And I think that was John Garang's hope. ... He had in mind holding the country together," Danforth said. "I think he had aspirations to be president of the entire country."

After Sudan's government and Garang's army reached a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, Danforth said, there was a flurry of hope that peace might prevail in the troubled country. "There was a pledging conference in Oslo shortly after that peace agreement and the international community pledged several billion dollars for the development of Sudan," he said. "The idea was to have some very visible peace dividends, such as a highway tying the country together."

But Garang, who served briefly as one of the nation's two vice presidents, was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005 and violence intensified in the incendiary Darfur region of western Sudan. (Darfur is not part of the secessionist South Sudan.) For many years, tensions grew in Darfur over grazing rights and land between the mostly nomadic Arabs and farmers in the region's three ethnic communities: the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa tribes.

But the Darfur conflict began in earnest in 2003 after rebel groups -- claiming that their communities were victims of discrimination under a government policy that leaned in favor of Arabs -- began attacking government targets. That instability eventually spilled over into adjacent regions of Chad and the Central African Republic.

"Darfur went from bad to worse and it all fell through," said Danforth. "So the best dream of what could happen [in a unified Sudan] never really came to pass."

This week's independence referendum in south Sudan, which continues until Saturday and preliminary results of which are expected next week, has attracted high-profile observers from around the world, including former President Jimmy Carter and ex-U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan. While the voting has gone smoothly in most areas, observers have reported several violent incidents, including an ambush by Arab tribesmen on a bus near the South Khordofan state that killed 10 people from southern Sudan who were reported to be traveling home to vote.

At a conference this week in Washington, representatives from several human rights and anti-genocide groups met to discuss the likely challenges that will be faced by south Sudan. The coalition, called Sudan Now, wants the U.S. government to play a greater role in promoting peace in Sudan in the wake of the referendum.

Amir Osman, the senior director of policy and government relations for the Save Darfur Coalition's Genocide Intervention Network, told reporters Tuesday that "we are very encouraged by the recent engagement of the Obama administration." He said he hoped that, with international help, "a solution can be reached without massive violence."

Osman said U.S. officials should try to engage other countries, particularly China, to support "a peaceful transition into the new Sudan." He also said that the continuing problems of Darfur cannot be ignored, and need to be addressed at the same time as the international community is trying to help south Sudan. "You can't have a stable south Sudan without resolving Darfur," he said.

David Abramowitz, the policy director for Humanity United -- a California-based philanthropic group that advocates peace initiatives in Sudan and other troubled countries -- called this week's referendum "a critically important milestone" in the nation's history.

"We need to have sustained attention [from the international community] as we reach the next stage of these negotiations" to form a new country between now and July. "The next six months will be critical."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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