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Friday, 15 October 2010

15 October 2010

You probably thought I was going to write about the rescue of the Chilean miners this week – and I admit I was tempted.

Like millions of people around the world, I was deeply moved by the scenes of jubilation at the San José mine as all 33 of the trapped miners were winched to the surface after their two-month ordeal.

But I think everything that there is to be said has already been said – so instead I want to alert you to a looming story which could be making headlines very soon.

It’s Sudan. A referendum is due to be held there in January, to allow the people of the south of the country to decide whether they want to remain part of Sudan, ruled from Khartoum, or split away to form a separate, independent nation of their own.

If the referendum goes ahead (and for reasons which will become clear, I hope, that is a very big “if”), the general expectation is that the South will vote Yes to independence, and a new nation will be born, the first in Africa since Eritrea emerged from Ethiopia as an independent state in its own right in 1993.

But there are problems. Big problems. Sudan is rich in oil reserves, and much of its oil is to be found -- most inconveniently -- right on the border between north and south. As a result, drawing the line between the two parts of the country becomes a hugely significant exercise, with immense economic implications for both sides.

Remember, Sudan has been riven by civil war for decades. The mainly Arab and Muslim north is deeply distrusted by the Christian and animist south. Only in 2005 did they sign a comprehensive peace agreement as part of which January’s referendum is to be held.

In fact, the plan is to hold not just one referendum, but two. One will be for the south to decide if it wants to secede; the second will be for the people of a small region called Abyei, to allow them to decide whether they want to be considered part of the north, or the south.

And yes, as you’ll have guessed, Abyei is awash in oil fields worth millions of dollars.

Earlier this week, talks aimed at resolving a dispute over the Abyei poll broke up with no agreement. Yesterday, the north said the scheduled referendum can’t now go ahead because there’s no agreement over who can vote.

Does it matter? Fraid so. No less a figure than film star George Clooney has just been there, and on his return immediately dropped in at the White House to exchange notes with President Obama. That’s how much it matters.

Sudan is now increasingly a nation of major strategic and economic importance. China has invested heavily, and the US is deeply involved diplomatically. And if war does resume between north and south, you can be sure that it will also resume in Darfur, to the west.

That’s why a high-powered UN security council mission has just been in Sudan. The US ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice, told security council members yesterday that the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, had warned her that the north is already preparing for war and may have started moving troops southward.

The talk now is of perhaps boosting the UN military presence along the dividing line between north and south, in the hope of deterring fresh violence. But who would provide the troops – and who would pay for them – remains unclear, and it’s by no means certain that the government in Khartoum would go along with the idea anyway.

Did I mention that the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court? He’s the first serving head of state to face such grave charges (they relate to the war in Darfur), and he is probably not too likely to heed calls for restraint from an international community that he regards as deeply biased against him.

But if you want to know what’s keeping the lights burning late at UN headquarters in New York, the answer is Sudan. There are more talks scheduled for later this month – but time is running out and rhetorical temperatures are rising dangerously.

I’m going to be taking a break now for a couple of weeks, so the next newsletter will be on 5 November.

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