As Sudan moves closer to a referendum that could split the country in two, the pressure is building on the African community to ensure the credibility of the process and prevent conflict from spilling over into the region.
Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum in January to determine whether it remains part of larger Sudan or forms a new state. The referendum is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than 20 years of fighting between the government in Khartoum and the Southern People's Liberation Movement.
In a report released last week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group called for Sudan's neighbors and continent-wide groups such as the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to engage Sudanese authorities on its referendum, and to formulate a coherent and unified stance toward Southern independence.
Sudan's ruling National Congress Party has agreed to respect the results of the referendum, but accusations of vote rigging and a southern boycott of national elections last month have many worried the referendum could spark renewed conflict between the two sides.
International Crisis Group Horn of Africa project director E.J. Hogendoorn expressed concern a lack of prior engagement could make matters worse.
"The regional partners and the international community cannot control all that the NCP and the SPLM does," he said. "What we do think that the regional states especially need to do is to have contingency planning, to think through the different scenarios and to be prepared for those eventualities. One of the problems is that, often times, countries are not prepared and because they are not prepared they act with very little thought. And that can obviously precipitate a wider conflict."
Crucial international support
According to the report, a coherent African stance on the referendum is a critical point on which the international community will base its position. It says international community support will be crucial for the implementation of the poll as well as its legitimacy.
Since the end of the colonial era, several countries have been struggling with disparate communities and ethnicities held together by artificial imperial boundaries. Many African leaders worry that a successful Sudanese referendum could create a precedent that would promote instability on the continent.
Hogendoorn raised the possibility of a split within the African Union on the issue, but warned that indecision could embolden either party to break the terms of the CPA and delegitimize the referendum.
"By sending mixed signals it can actually promote or increase the likelihood that a crisis escalates," he said. "You want both sides to be very sanguine about what they are doing and, obviously, not to try to resort to violence. But of course that is a possibility. We do not say it is the most likely possibility but we think that, given the consequences in the region, people need to anticipate those and try to work against that."
Despite Khartoum's acceptance of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, its implementation has not gone smoothly and many questions surround southern independence.
The most significant of these questions is oil. Southern Sudan contains vast oil deposits. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement calls for both sides to work out a resource-sharing deal in the eventuality of a split, but there has been little, if any, progress on the issue.
Southern Sudan's neighbors are counting on this oil to drive development in the region. Countries, such as Uganda and Kenya, have already undertaken massive development projects to export the south's resources to the rest of the world.
These countries have much at stake in southern independence. Should the referendum be tarnished in any way, it is unknown how the region will respond.