KHARTOUM, Sudan - A referendum on whether oil-rich southern Sudan breaks away to become Africa's newest nation is scheduled to take place in less than four months. But with negotiations between north and south stalled over border demarcation, and preparations for the vote lagging perilously behind, the likelihood of the referendum proceeding as planned appears slim.
Analysts fear that any delay could trigger a return to the decades-long civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people, primarily southerners.
Sudan's Islamist government, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, appears reluctant to let go of oil fields that have helped it survive U.S. economic sanctions first imposed in the 1990s after Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terrorism. The loss of territory in resource-rich southern Sudan would have grave economic consequences for the north, analysts say.
According to Fouad Hikmat, the International Crisis Group's special adviser on Sudan, the government says the referendum cannot take place until agreements are reached on issues related to its economic future.
"If these negotiations fail for whatever reasons, the referendum will be in jeopardy," Hikmat said.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration boosted its efforts to mitigate the looming crisis, dispatching veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman to join U.S. special envoy Scott Gration in Sudan.
The U.S. government has long been committed to the right of self-determination for the predominantly animist and Christian population of southern Sudan.
In 2001, pushed by an advocacy coalition led by U.S. evangelical and African-American churches, former President George W. Bush made bringing peace to the region a foreign policy priority. His administration helped secure a 2005 peace agreement, which established a power-sharing government that was supposed to lead Sudan from dictatorship to democracy. After a six-year interim period of semi-autonomous-rule, the south was to vote in 2011 on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede.
But with international attention on a separate crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, and relations between north and south marked by mistrust, the benchmarks set out in the agreement fell behind schedule. In April, a national election that had been delayed twice, and that most opposition parties boycotted, handed Bashir -- who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court - an electoral victory.
The ruling National Congress Party now says the referendum cannot take place until the border has been demarcated. But members of an 18-person Technical Border Committee representing both sides have been unable to reach a final agreement on the boundary.
Battle over resources
Stretching from the Central African Republic in the west to Ethiopia in the east, the 1,200-mile border region between north and south is among the most resource-rich and ethnically diverse areas of Sudan. Predominantly Arab pastoralists from north of the border who journey southward each year to graze their livestock fear that demarcation will prevent their seasonal movement.
The border committee has agreed on about 80 percent of the border, the Sudanese minister of cabinet affairs, Luka Biong, said in an interview in Khartoum. But the parties have reached an impasse regarding five areas where the majority of Sudan's oil wealth lies, he said.
One of the contested areas encompasses the Heglig oil fields outside the border town of Abyei, where tensions between resident southern Ngok Dinka farmers and northern Misserya pastoralists are particularly high.
"Heglig belongs to the south. It is in Unity State," said Edward Lino, a Ngok Dinka and former administrator of the Abyei area.
Gen. Babo Nimer, brother of the paramount chief of the Misserya people, was equally adamant: "Heglig belongs to Kordofan, to the north. Full stop."
Oil exploration in Sudan began in the 1970s. According to a 2010 survey by BP, Sudan is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, currently producing 490,000 barrels per day. The Sudanese minister of petroleum, Lual Deng, said that more than 80 percent of Sudan's current oil reserves lie in the south.
Under the peace accord, the parties agreed to split the proceeds from the oil fields until the 2011 referendum. According to figures published by the Sudanese government, oil revenue accounted for about $2.8 billion of its budget last year and an estimated 60 percent of this year's budget.
Deng, one of the few southerners with a ministerial position in the post-election government, said he fears that an immediate budget cut for the north would ignite a war. "In order to avoid conflict, we could look to a phase-out arrangement whereby you provide the north some [oil] until they get an alternative," he said.
The pipeline to export southern oil currently cuts through the north, and the south has not begun construction on a pipeline that would avoid that route. But an interim agreement could help both north and south, Deng said.
"We can have a win-win," he said.
Delay in vote preparations
On the logistical front, officials say that planning for the referendum is far behind schedule.
"We have not started," the referendum commission's head, Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, 85, said in his dilapidated law office in downtown Khartoum.
Khalil was appointed only in July because the north and south had been unable to agree on the composition of the commission. The secretary general of the commission, responsible for its budget, was appointed this month.
In the short time left before the referendum, the commission must organize voter registration across southern Sudan, a vast area desperately lacking in basic infrastructure. Khalil said that in addition to overseeing voter registration in south Sudan, his commission must ensure that voting centers are established in all areas where more than 20,000 southern Sudanese reside.
During the war years, those who could flee the fighting did. Many headed to the relative safety of northern Sudan. Others relocated to countries around the world, including more than 150,000 in the United States. The commission must ensure all of these people get the chance to vote.
Khalil said preparation for the vote does not fit in the remaining time frame. But rather than push for a delay, he said that for now at least, his role is to make it work.