A senior Sudanese negotiator said he sees little hope for progress in talks with South Sudan on contentious issues left over from the two countries' separation last July. Mediators in Addis Ababa are measuring progress in millimeters.
Former Sudanese Central Bank governor Sabir Mohamed al Hassan was blunt Friday when asked whether he thinks the current session of African Union-mediated talks might yield forward movement. "Personally, no. I don't think so. I'm not really optimistic," he said.
One track of the talks focuses on oil. The landlocked south must use the north's pipelines to send its oil abroad. But a dispute over transit fees prompted the south to shut down production, costing both sides hundreds of million dollars per month in income.
Hassan, Khartoum's lead negotiator in the oil talks, said it would be a victory if the two sides could simply agree to talk in a spirit of compromise.
"That the two parties sit down and negotiate in good faith, negotiate with the objective of reaching a compromise," Hassan said. "That the two parties move forward to meet each other, not each party standing on its position."
Pagan Amum, Chief Negotiator of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (L), listens to remarks by Stephen Dhieu Dau, Minister of Petroleum and Mining in South Sudan, at Paloich Airport in Melut, South Sudan, February 21, 2012
Speaking to VOA earlier in the week, South Sudan's chief negotiator Pagan Amum indicated the oil talks are hopelessly deadlocked. The Khartoum side is asking for a package of charges totaling $36 a barrel, while the delegation from Juba is offering a flat rate of 69 cents.
Amum said Sudan can take the south's offer or leave it. "The figures for transit fee is 69 cents. If they don't, there will be no deal, he said."
Diplomats following the talks say the atmosphere had been frigid since this 10-day negotiating session began with a shouting match over the sensitive issue of nationalities - specifically, the fate of southerners in the north, and northerners in the south.
A member of the African Union mediation team urged patience, noting that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Sudanese civil war took four years to negotiate.
The main sticking point in the nationalities track of the talks is the fate of 35,000 women and children the south says were abducted by the north during the long civil war. Briefing VOA on condition of anonymity, a senior South Sudan official said any agreement must refer to these people as “abductees."
Khartoum flatly rejects such a characterization. Northern negotiator Hassan blames the south for adopting an uncompromising position when it would be easy to refer the matter to a high-level commission.
"I don't know how to say it, but the way, the approach, was not constructive," Hassan said. "We said, let us set up the committee, give it the power to look into the situation of all nationalities, without exception, but they insisted, no."
Analysts watching the talks say breaking the deadlock is critical because of the degree to which both sides financially depend on oil. The south in particular has no other significant source of foreign revenue.
The nationalities issue is considered equally critical. With the south's independence looming last year and no solution in sight, the two sides agreed to allow another six months for a settlement. Those six months are up April 8. After that date, hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border could become illegal aliens in their own homes.