A whole host of U.S. officials are on the ground in Sudan, working tirelessly to encourage that two votes scheduled for early January are conducted on time and fairly. But the top U.S. official in Sudan said on Monday that at least one of the two votes will not happen as scheduled, and that the other could now be delayed as well.
In the main referendum scheduled for Jan. 9, the citizens of oil-rich Southern Sudan are due to decide whether to remain united to the Northern Khartoum-based government or separate to form their own country. In the second poll, the citizens of the resource-wealthy province of Abyei are supposed to decide whether they want to be part of the North or the South -- if the South does vote to secede.
U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration said on Monday on a conference call from Khartoum that due to problems setting up the vote in Abyei, that vote will not happen on Jan. 9 as had been hoped.
"We've passed the opportunity for there to be a poll," Gration said, citing disagreements over voter eligibility that led to delays in setting up the logistics of holding a referendum in Abyei. He said the issue was in the hands of the two parties, but that the United States was "encouraging them to do what it takes to get a solution before the end of the 9th of January."
The revised goal appears to be somewhat less ambitious, but no less critical: if the outstanding issues in dispute in Abyei are unresolved before the South votes on Jan. 9 -- and if the expected outcome of secession hold -- both sides could claim ownership of the province and violence could erupt.
"We are working with both sides to calm the rhetoric and put a plan in place that will give both sides reassurances," Gration said. "This is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. We're looking for a solution that leaves both sides angry but neither side mad."
A senior U.S. official, speaking on background, said that the Abyei situation was extremely tense and represented the greatest risk of violence in the near term. If Abyei breaks out in violence, it could threaten the overall Southern Sudan referendum, the official said.
"In terms of violence that would upset the (Jan. 9) referendum, Abyei could be a flashpoint that would be disturbing enough that there would be cause for a delay," the officials said. "It's important that the (Sudanese) presidency come out with some roadmap, some solution, that the people in that area know what their future is going to be."
Of course, even without a breakout of violence in Abyei, the referendum in Southern Sudan might be delayed anyway. Gration said that although the technical preparations in Southern Sudan were going well, legal challenges to the referendum could result in a delay.
Southern Sudanese leaders have been flooded in recent days by complaints and legal challenges intended to derail the referendum, a campaign they claim is an organized effort supported by the government in the North. One of the complaints, for example, is that time periods for various stages of voting were not strictly adhered to.
Gration admitted that the voter registration period and the time between registration and voting had been compressed.
"Therefore the Southern Sudan Referendum Act was not totally complied with in order to reach the date of Jan. 9... We think it's a good trade off," Gration said. "It really didn't change the outcome and it hasn't changed the transparency."
Another senior U.S. official said that there are no "technical" barriers to holding the referendum on Jan. 9, but acknowledged the political problems. He estimated the odds of holding the vote on time at "greater than 50 percent."
But the official admitted that even a short delay in the overall referendum could cause huge problems in Sudan.
"That would be a serious political crisis if there were any serious steps to delay the referendum," the official said.
John Prendergast, the CEO of the Enough Project, said that the key to peace is to fold the sensitive Abyei negotiations back into the larger deal that is being pursued between the North and South on a host of issues, including borders, citizenship, and wealth sharing.
"Tradeoffs and compromises are critical at this juncture," he said. "For the overall deal to work, Abyei is going to have to be transferred to the South, using the borders outlined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. But the Arab Misseriya population is going to have to have a minority role in governing arrangements in Abyei, along with guaranteed grazing rights along traditional migratory routes. Both sides are going to have to give in order to avert war, a war in which everyone would lose badly."
Gration also announced that Ambassador Dane Smith will join the U.S. delegation in Sudan to be the point man for the Darfur issue, which some analysts are concerned is worsening as attention focuses on other parts of the country. Gration will travel this week to Doha for a multilateral meeting on Darfur.