U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that a secession vote by the people of southern Sudan in January is "inevitable." Clinton telephoned senior leaders of the coalition government in Khartoum as part of a U.S. diplomatic effort to make the expected north-south split as peaceful as possible.
Clinton says that neither the Sudanese government in Khartoum nor the southern administration in Juba is ready for an independence vote, and that a successful referendum process will require an all-out diplomatic effort by the two sides, the African Union, the United States and other concerned parties.
The Secretary's comments, in a Washington speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, were her most extensive on the Sudanese political process in some time.
Voters in southern Sudan and the disputed central Sudanese region of Abiyei are to vote in January on whether the now-autonomous southern region will become an independent state and whether oil rich Abiyei will be part of the new state.
But efforts to organize the election have lagged, along with the delineation of a border between the prospective separate states.
Clinton called the north-south situation "a ticking time-bomb of enormous consequence" and said that pulling together a successful referendum will be difficult.
The Secretary said the real problems will emerge after, in her words, "the inevitable happens" and the south votes for independence.
Noting that a split would, among other things, leave most of Sudan's oil resources in the south, Clinton said the task will be to strike deals that will "limit the potential of violence."
"The reality is that this as going to be a very hard decision for the north to accept," said Secretary Clinton. "And so we've got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent south, and for the south that to recognize that unless they want more years of warfare, and no chance to build their own new state, they've got to make some accommodations with the north as well."
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Clinton followed up her remarks with telephone calls to Sudanese First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit - the southern leader - and Vice President Ali Othman Taha to urge full implementation of the 2005 north-south peace accord.
He said Clinton is sending U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration back to the region on Thursday to continue the senior-level dialogue.
Crowley said that despite Clinton's expressed concerns about a violent separation of Sudan, the United States does not expect a return to conflict.
"We're not preparing for war," said P.J. Crowley. "In fact, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended a conflict, and created an opportunity for stability in Darfur and a just peace between north and south. We are very mindful that if for some reason, full implementation of the CPA is not forthcoming, if the referendum is not seen as credible, there certainly is the risk of further conflict."
Special envoy Gration's trip to Sudan will be his third in less than two months. Retired U.S. ambassador Princeton Lyman, who was appointed to the U.S. diplomatic team on Sudan last month, has also visited the region in recent days.