“You know, my people told me I should never meet with you,” Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir told Richard Williamson, former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, during the Bush Administration.
Clearly, it’s no easy task conducting diplomatic relations with Khartoum’s government. Yet two days from the referendum that will likely split north and south, the international community has flocked to Sudan, working to establish security and stability and preparing for the aftermath
This is where the hard work begins. The south possesses the near insurmountable task of building a new state. Establishing a government and economy will take time as southern Sudan—if things go well—will be shifting from a military adversarial posture to one based on development, according to Special Assistant to the President Gayle Smith. Many issues such as oil revenue rights and border demarcation are unresolved, and long-term negotiation will be required.
In terms of the north, Bashir is perceived as weakened by his northern rivals for allowing southern secession and is politically vulnerable. According to an Administration official, “We don’t have an understanding of what will come next, but we are rightfully concerned that any successor regime could be even more extreme in its views.” If one of Bashir’s more belligerent challengers seizes control, it could heighten the chances that the north will interfere and try to destabilize the south. Thus, according to Smith, “The staying power of the international community is key. The world cannot stop paying attention.”
Unfortunately, the United States is constantly playing catch up in Sudan. Only in the past few months has the Obama Administration made Sudan its top priority in Africa. The U.S. cannot afford to “squander time like it has,” according to Williamson and must call on international partners to step up their efforts as well. Two years have been lost, and now the Administration is scrambling to ensure that Sudan does not dissolve into a failed state.
African nations, particularly Sudan’s neighbors, play a major role in providing support to Sudan. This is appropriate because they will face the greatest consequences of failure. According to a recently released study by Frontier Economics, if Sudan returns to civil war, its neighbors could lose 34 percent of GDP over the next 10 years. Furthermore, past conflict has resulted in the influx of refugees. In the last war 200,000 refugees fled to Uganda alone. Another war could put a massive burden on neighboring countries already struggling to deal with their own economic and political challenges.
Sudan’s referendum, though riddled with setbacks, provides southern Sudanese with a chance for self-determination. But that is only the first step. The U.S. and the international community need to be prepared for the long road ahead.
Sudan’s referendum is not a checkbox on a list of foreign policy objectives. It is a long-term obligation for which continuous attention is needed.