Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has formed his new Cabinet and appointed a southern official to the post of oil minister. The government of South Sudan welcomed the move but downplayed its significance Wednesday, saying it was unlikely to change the region's stance on independence.
On June 15 President Bashir formed what is likely to be his last Cabinet in the unity government before the January referendum to resolve the question of southern secession.
In an overture to the people of southern Sudan, President Bashir appointed a Southerner, Lual Acuek Deng, to serve as the country's oil minister. The president appointed Deng to the newly created ministry after splitting the former Ministry of Oil, Mining and Electricity into three separate units.
Mr. Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in Darfur. The move comes nearly two months after the embattled president retained power in a controversial election, which many observers say failed to meet international polling standards.
The head of the government of South Sudan's mission in Nairobi, Michael Majok, said the appointment was confusing, but likely a response to the south's criticism over oil-sharing in the nation.
"We don't understand why he gave [appointed] Dr. Lual to become minister of petroleum, maybe because of the complaints of the Southern People's Liberation Movement about the sharing of the oil. So he wanted to see a member of the Southern People's Liberation Movement to be a minister of that one," he said.
Oil revenue has been one of the main causes of friction between the mainly Arab north and the African south in recent years. Southern Sudan holds the bulk of the country's oil reserves but has seen relatively little profit since their discovery.
Oil revenue will also be one of the most critical issues as Southern Sudan votes on independence in January. Profits from oil production in the south account for the majority of Khartoum's budget and parting with it will not be easy.
The referendum is the final step in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 which ended more than 20 years of war between the government in Khartoum and the Southern People's Liberation Movement.
The agreement outlined steps to help make Sudanese unity more attractive, including an oil-sharing scheme to benefit both regions.
The Southern People's Liberation Movement, now the dominant political party in Southern Sudan, says the Sudanese government has largely failed in implementing the agreement.
According to Majok, the appointment of Deng is too little too late. The southern diplomat said the move could improve relations, but was unlikely to affect the outcome of the referendum.
"You cannot do this with the last three months or five or six months," he said. "They should have started in 2005, when we agreed the unity should be based on the free will and the requirements. 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 South is widely expected to choose independence in January. Though President Bashir has previously promised to respect the results of the referendum, it is unclear how a split could affect regional stability.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding oil-sharing, border disputes are testing the peace. The Abyei region of central Sudan, which produces nearly half of the country's oil, has been claimed by both the north and south. The region is scheduled to determine its allegiance on the same day of the southern referendum, but political deadlock over the implementation of the vote has stoked fears of renewed violence.