United States Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration was in Nairobi Tuesday to discuss joint efforts between the U.S. and the Government of South Sudan for agricultural development in the region. The stop is part of a two week tour to address the challenges facing Sudan as the south prepares for a January referendum on independence.
During his two-day stop in the Kenyan capital, General Gration will take part in a conference on improving agricultural production in southern Sudan. The talks, being hosted jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Government of South Sudan, are aimed at developing infrastructure and revitalizing commercial agriculture in the region.
Speaking at the start of the conference, Gration expressed confidence the talks could bring significant economic benefits to the largely poor and rural area.
"This is just the first step of what we believe will be a partnership that will take us, not only in the short term, but also a long term plan in making agriculture really sustainable and really productive and really the foundation of economic growth for southern Sudan; and not only southern Sudan but this whole region," said Gration.
Despite an abundance of fertile land, agricultural production in southern Sudan has been crippled by a lack of basic infrastructure, made worse by the country's 22-year civil war, which ended in 2005.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed by the government in Khartoum and the Southern People's Liberation Movement, was intended to address the factors underlying the conflict, such as resource allocation, infrastructure development and political marginalization in the south. But many southerners feel those objectives have not been met. Observers are now looking towards the final provision in the peace agreement: a referendum on southern independence.
Southerners are widely expected to choose independence from Khartoum in the referendum, which is to be held in January. Many international organizations operating in Sudan are now anticipating southern secession, and agricultural production is seen as a necessary piece of the future state's nascent economy.
But the special envoy's visit comes as doubt is being cast over the prospects for a peaceful vote. Tensions between the governments of North and South Sudan have been escalating in negotiations over the referendum's implementation and logistical issues regarding secession.
The work of the Referendum Commission has been stalled in recent weeks by disagreements over the position of Secretary-General, which controls the commission funds. An agreement was reached Monday to allow a northern official to hold the post, but the commission now faces the task of registering southern voters, many of which are inaccessible by road or in refugee camps outside the region.
In addition, the two governments have yet to produce an agreement on oil-sharing, seen as a key component to the success of the referendum. Khartoum relies heavily on southern oil-production for revenue and will lose the majority of Sudan's oil-field if the south chooses independence in January.
General Gration will meet with officials from both the north and south over the next week to address the obstacles to the critical vote. Both sides have declared their commitment to hold the referendum on time, but many observers worry that the challenges facing Sudan could make a January vote impossible.