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Sudan awaits the sound of one hand clapping

In words and symbols, voters in South Sudan will be offered the choice between separation and unity with the North on January 9.The ballot papers designed by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission are elegantly straightforward. In words and symbols, voters in South Sudan will be offered the choice between separation and unity with the North on January 9. One hand represents separation. Two clasped hands represent unity.

The majority of voters are expected to choose separation but any celebrations in the South are at risk of being replaced by disappointment or even conflict.

Even if Northern Sudan does not try to prevent secession, there is no guarantee that the transition to independence will be peaceful, nor that South Sudan will be able to function as a normal state in the first years following independence.

The South's referendum will take place on the sixth anniversary of the signing of a North/South peace agreement on January 9, 2005.

The progress to date with preparations for January 9 suggest that the Khartoum government may respect the result. It remains to be seen if there will be outbreaks of violence, whether government-orchestrated or not. Earlier this year, the Brussels-based Crisis Group (ICG) described the North-South border as "dangerously militarised".

A larger problem may be the unresolved negotiations of the terms of the 'divorce'. Work needs to be done to ensure the separation is more peaceful than that of its Horn of Africa neighbours, writes IRIN.

“The foundations for a constructive post-referendum relationship are yet to be laid,” warned the ICG in a recent report.

“Securing the referendum is the top priority, but neglecting the groundwork for positive post-referendum relations would be short-sighted and very possibly a recipe for renewed conflict”, said E.J. Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Acting Africa Program Director.

Josh Kron, reported in yesterday's New York Times that "a major component (of the preparations) is lagging: virtually none of the soldiers have put down their weapons and fully rejoined civilian life."

Freedoms, democracy and human rights in an independent South Sudan cannot be assumed. In March, David De Dau, head of the southern-based Agency for Independent Media told reporters that South Sudan's media was "under attack" ahead of April elections: "Journalists have been arrested, harassed, intimidated, threatened, humiliated, molested, tortured and detained for no clear reason".

Richard Cockett, Africa editor of the Economist writes that there is both much to celebrate and much to worry about.

South Sudan will hold general elections and a fresh population census if southerners vote for independence. A new constitution will also be written under the deal.

A new report from the Center for Global Development considers how Sudan's $35 billion of debt as well as its oil might be divided if the country splits, including a road map for clearing the arrears and obtaining debt relief.

Although it has been criticised for inaction, the United States has made noticeable efforts to ensure that the referendum would take place and that the result would be respected. Wikileaks has revealed that Sudan/Darfur even made it to the top of the July 2009 UN priorities list for the US State Department.

The Darfur conflict is separate and, to some extent, may have been compounded by the process of securing a peaceful end to the civil war with the South.

Peace negotiations are currently taking place in Darfur . Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir told a rally there that he had set a deadline of next Thursday for a successful resolution of the talks .

Even if those talks are successful and the referendum passes peacefully, Darfur and South Sudan may need ongoing international attention and assistance for many years to come.

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