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Sudan Parliament Appoints Commission to Prepare for Referendum

  • Michael Onyiego

Sudanese lawmakers voted Monday to establish a long-awaited commission to guide the referendum process in southern Sudan.

With just more than six months until southerners vote on the creation of an independent South Sudan, the parliament in Khartoum unanimously approved a nine-member commission to oversee preparations for the historic vote.

The Referendum Commission will be chaired by former Sudanese foreign minister Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, who also served as the speaker of parliament from 1986 until 1989.

The agreement ends years of waiting as well of months of negotiations between the ruling National Congress Party and the Southern People's Liberation Movement, the dominant party in the South.

The referendum is the final stage of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed by the two parties to end more than two decades of war. The process of appointing the commission began months ago, but stalled when one of the nominees was rejected over questions regarding his neutrality.

The commission now has until January to register voters in the south. While straightforward, the task could prove difficult when confronted with poverty and underdevelopment in the region.

Though it covers an area of approximately 650,000 square kilometers, southern Sudan contains less than 100 kilometers of paved roads, making access to rural populations difficult during most of the year and nearly impossible during heavy rains, which last until October.

Despite these challenges, southerners are widely expected to choose independence when the polls open in January.

The goal of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was to pursue development in the region that would make unity attractive to both north and south.

But according to the Head of the Government of South Sudan's Mission in Nairobi, Michael Majok, the government in Khartoum has not held up its end of the bargain. "They should have started in 2005, when we agreed the unity should be based on the free will and the requirements," he said. "The causes of the conflict itself has to be removed, so that the unity must be attractive. If they can convince the southerners of that within three months that is good. I think it will not change anything because the people of South Sudan they have seen that there is nothing that has been given to them."

The other pressing issue is oil. South Sudan produces the vast majority of Sudanese oil, but has seen very little of its profit. Despite ongoing negotiations on oil-sharing, the two regions have made almost no progress towards a deal.

There is also the problem of Abyei, a region in central Sudan that contains nearly half of the country's oil reserves. While Khartoum believes Abyei belongs in the North, some residents in the region advocate affiliation with the South. The breakaway state is to hold its own referendum in January.