Martin Plaut, Africa Editor, BBC World Service

Chatham House

Africa’s largest country goes to the polls on April 11, the first time Sudan has held amulti-party election for almost a quarter of a century. Even more is at stake than in any normal poll, Sudanesewill decide next year whether their state should split. And in the background hangs the threat of violence.

The elections will be an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. Vast swathes of the country, a quarter the size of the United States, has no infrastructure of any kind. Sudan’s geography is as unforgiving as is its history. Since independence in 1956 it has been almost constantly at war; whether between the predominantly Arab north and the mainly African south or, since 2003, between Khartoum and Darfur. These civil wars, together with innumerable local conflicts, have devastated the country.

In January 2005 the worst of the wars, between the government and the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, finally came to an end with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This long and immensely complex document not only ending the fighting, it also laid out a roadmap for peace.Money fromthe oil fields would be divided equally and the armed forces were supposed to merge. Most importantly, the south was granted autonomy to be followed by a referendumon secession in 2011.

This was meant to have been a real choice, but as time has gone by the southern capital, Juba, has emerged as little short of the seat of government of an independent state. The southern leader, Salva Kiir, has spentmost of his time running the south, rather than participating in the government of Sudan as a whole, as its first Vice-President.

There is every indication that the south will opt for independence when the referendum comes. If it gains international recognition it will become the first new state on the continent since Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

After the signing of the Peace Agreement relations between Khartoumand Juba soured. There were endless rows over where the northsouth border should run, critical since much of the oil is along this line. There were sporadic disputes and even open clashes between the two armed forces. And, perhaps worst of all, both north and south used their oil wealth to engage in an arms race.

GROUNDS FOR GLOOM

The excellent study by the Small Arms Survey, a project run by the Swiss Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, published in December, provided ample grounds for gloom. The survey quoted the head of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army as giving a fifty percent chance of a return to war with the north.

It also provides a detailed breakdown of the pace of arms transfers to both sides, with Khartoum importing tanks, armoured vehicles, attack aircraft and combat helicopters, while Juba has purchased more than a hundred tanks, as well as anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers. These weapons flows, plus the frequent and bitter disagreements between the political leaderships in north and south Sudan, have resulted in widespread pessimism.

In December, Pagan Amum, the most senior southern politician in Khartoumwas arrested while holding a rally to protest against what he said was President Omar al-Bashir’s attempt to halt the south’s bid for independence. He accused the president’s party of a ‘sinister plan’ to hold on to the south’s oil wealth. This was only resolved after the intervention of the president, and Kiir, his southern counterpart. Tension remained high.

As the African Union commission chairman, Jean Ping, remarked at the end of January, the country is ‘…sitting on a powder keg.’

Yet the apocalyptic scenariosmay have been overdone, not least because the international community is now fully engaged in attempting to avoid a catastrophe.

THREE WISE MEN

The hope of a peaceful resolution lies in the hands of three key individuals: the newly-appointed United Nations Special Envoy to Sudan, Haile Menkerios; US President Barack Obama’s own envoy, Scott Gration, and the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who bears the AfricanUnion’s stamp of approval.

Menkerios, who took-up his post onMarch 1, is one of Africa’smost experienced diplomats. An Eritrean by birth, he was director of the UN’s Africa division. He played a key role in brokering the agreement in December 2002 ending the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then he has been the UN’s ‘Mr fix-it’,most recently attempting to bridge the divide in Madagascan politics.

Mbeki, who was badly wounded when he was removed as president by his own party, the African National Congress, has returned to the international stage as an African statesman. It is the role in which he ismost comfortable. As chairman of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel on Darfur he proposed the establishment of a hybrid court, including Sudanese and international lawyers, to prosecute Darfur war crimes suspects.

It was a neat attempt to side step the International Criminal Court, which had issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir – something the Sudanese government would never accept. Major-General Gration too has African roots. The son of a missionary, he grew up in Congo and Kenya. Since being named special envoy in March last year, he has immersed himself in the Darfur crisis.Whilemaintaining the necessary pressure on the Sudanese leadership, he ended the confrontational relationship between the US and Sudan, fostered by the Christian right and the Darfur lobby.

Now relations between Khartoum and Juba are consuming his energies. He has the support of those in the international community who have been working on Sudan: the troika – US, Britain and Norway – and the Sudan contact group.

Although no Sudanese crisis can be overcome without the willingness of Sudanese to resolve their problems, history suggests this can only be achieved with outside support. The question is how these three men work together to achieve this. So what principles could they build on?

Firstly, a recognition that while all conflicts have local roots, Sudan has to be treated as a whole. A crisis in one area can ripple across the country’s political system. All those peoples, both in north and south Sudan, who have beenmarginalised down the years need to be accommodated. Secondly, Africa and the wider international community must accept that it is highly unlikely that the country can be kept together. The south is almost certain to go its own way; the question is how to arrange an amicable separation. Can the ‘velvet divorce’ between Czechs and Slovaks be replicated in Sudan?

If a violent rupture is to be avoided there must be agreements on key issues, including how to share precious oil and water resources – the Nile waters are central to Egyptian concerns – and how to accommodate southerners in the north, and northerners living in the south.

IMPROVING

Grim as some predictions have been, the Sudanese situation has generally improved in recent months.

In February, Chad and Sudan signed an agreement to end support for rebel movements operating fromeach other’s territory. This resulted in the cantonment of Sudanese backed Chadian militia and an end to Chad’s support for the Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement.

This was followed by the visit of Chadian president Idris Deby to Khartoumand the establishment of a border force. Then, on February 23 Sudanese President al-Bashir, and Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement signed a ceasefire in Qatar, the culmination of a year of internationally brokered negotiations.

This should have paved the way for other Darfur rebel movements to come into the fold, but it appears to have had the opposite effect. Fighting erupted in the rebel fastness of the Jabel Marra between Sudanese government forces and the Sudan Liberation Army. That group, which began the Darfur war in 2003, was not included in the Qatar agreement and appears to have been determined to show that it could not be excluded fromthe peace process.

Hundreds are reported to have been killed. The French humanitarian organisation Médecins du Monde, one of the few agencies working in the Jabel Marra, withdrew its staff because of the clashes. It says the recent fighting has displaced one hundred thousand people.

Despite this setback, north-south relations, which are the key to any future peace, remain on an unsteady, but improving path. April’s elections are still on track, with significant observer teams from the Carter Center and the European Union. Campaigning has begun, with twelve presidential candidates challenging al-Bashir. This will be accompanied by legislative and regional elections.

An important agreement was arrived at, giving an additional forty seats to the south, removing southern objections to what they regarded a rigged census. When the census results were announced last year they gave the south just 21 percent of Sudan’s population of some forty million, rather than the one-third estimate agreed in the 2005 peace deal. This was critical, since the additional seats allow the south to block amendments to the constitution.

Then, on March 1, al-Bashir not only toured the south, but addressed an enthusiastic crowd in Juba; an event almost unthinkable only a few weeks earlier. Southern memories of the decades of war are still fresh in every mind. The president openly called for the unity of Sudan, yet the visit passed without incident.

Much can go wrong before the election and in themonths that follow, as recent events have demonstrated. Sudan has repeatedly trembled on the brink of an abyss since the signing of the peace agreement in 2005, but its leaders have always pulled back at the last moment. Now, as the country enters a critical year, all the skills of Mbeki, Menkerios and Gration will be required if the shoals ahead are to be avoided.

Martin Plaut, Africa Editor, BBC World Service