Can Sudan Split Without Falling Apart?

Southern Sudan is set to become the world's newest nation. But a peaceful divorce from the north could still descend into war

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Southern Sudanese police escort civilians across the border

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Avoiding Déjà Vu
So how does the world prevent another Sudanese meltdown? By using what, for decades, has been unthinkable in Sudan: diplomacy. Last fall, with the referendum looming, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations that Sudan is a "ticking time bomb of enormous consequences," adding that the loss of the south "is going to be a very hard decision for the north to accept, so we have got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while." In November, Senator John Kerry visited Khartoum on the Obama Administration's behalf.

If the north were to allow a peaceful referendum, said Kerry, the U.S. would remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Progress in other areas, notably Darfur, the scene of bitter fighting between rebels and the regime, would lead to an end to economic sanctions — and relief of Sudan's $35 billion of foreign debt. Kerry is optimistic: "We're very hopeful," he says. "All sides are really focused on trying to avoid more conflict."

The softer Washington line on Sudan is being reflected in other capitals too. For the past 18 months, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, representing the African Union, has been the lead international mediator in talks between the north and south. The government of Qatar is hosting peace talks over Darfur. And Beijing, which extracts and imports the lion's share of Sudan's oil, is helping diplomatically too. All of this has set the scene for unparalleled international coordination, says Scott Gration, a retired Air Force major general who is the U.S. special envoy to Sudan. "We did not come together by accident," he says. "We have the same mission: creating an environment where the parties themselves pull this off."

All the same, there are plenty of ways the north and south can still blunder back into war. Besides Abyei, lines between the two are blurred in at least six border disputes. Other points of contention to resolve before separation would become formal in July include how to split that $35 billion in debt, the oil, the national army, the waters of the White Nile, and grazing and land rights.

Even if deals can be reached, doubts remain over whether either north or south can thrive alone. For the north, divorce could mean a crushing alimony: most of Sudan's oil, currently accounting for 60% of Sudanese government revenue, is in the south. There is also concern about the north's political stability. The south's departure may encourage other rebel movements, and the loss of territory might be a cue for hard-line Islamists or generals to unseat al-Bashir.

If al-Bashir has worries in the north, so does the government in the south. McEvoy has been watching four warlords who, disappointed with their likely roles in an independent nation, last year broke with the SPLA and took their men into the bush. One such group killed 20 SPLA soldiers on Dec. 20. Kiir, the south's leader, is trying to buy off all four warlords with government positions. "These guys don't pose a huge threat today," says McEvoy, "but the potential in the future is huge."

Then there's the south's economic viability. Khartoum is a city of chic cafés and gleaming skyscrapers, but most southerners still live in mud huts and make do with little industry or agriculture, few roads and almost no electricity. And foreign aid doesn't do much. Last February, World Bank investigators found that their team in Juba had spent just $217 million of the $526 million they were managing in a multidonor fund to assist south Sudan's construction.

In the run-up to its anticipated inauguration as a new capital, Juba has become a boomtown, drawing a motley crew of chancers: logistics experts, car salesmen, development workers and working girls. But an economy in which the big money — from aid and oil — goes to foreign contractors or foreign bank accounts held by southern-Sudanese officials leaves most ordinary people basing their hopes for future prosperity on the wallets of a few thousand foreigners and bureaucrats. David Gressly, the U.N.'s regional coordinator in Juba, says it will take a generation before southern Sudan is fully formed. "Real success will take 20 to 25 years," he says.

So many and varied are the issues facing Sudan that most observers decline predictions. Asked about Sudan's outlook, a senior Western diplomat in Juba replies, "Damned if I know. There are an astonishing range of problems that are going to wash over this place." Failure — in the form of war — will be easy to spot. Success will be less obvious: slow, messy and with endless setbacks. But that is also a description of diplomacy. And the surprising news from Sudan is that, so far, diplomacy is working.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 10, 2011 issue of TIME
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