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As Sudan Prepares for Secession Vote, Fears of Unrest Intensify

October 18, 2010 at 8:02 PM EST
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Margaret Warner talks to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice about the ethnic tension in Sudan ahead of an important referendum on whether the oil-rich South should secede.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: an update on the African nation of Sudan, where ethnic tensions threaten to erupt once again. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: When people hear of conflict in Sudan, they tend to think about Darfur, the western region where fighting since 2003 has killed some quarter-million people and forced nearly two million from their homes.

But another conflict is brewing over the fate of oil-rich Southern Sudan. And it could come to a head on or before January 9, less than 90 days from now. That’s when heavily Christian South Sudan is scheduled to vote on whether to break away from the predominantly Muslim north.

The January vote was scheduled under a 2005 peace accord ending a 21-year civil war between the two regions. As a temporary solution, Southern Sudan was given limited autonomy and the promise of a secession vote in 2011.

But, recently, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and other top officials in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, have sent mixed signals about whether they will be ready for the vote, allow the vote, or abide by its results.

Complicating matters further, a tiny oil-producing district along the north-south border, Abyei, has its own plebiscite scheduled the same day on whether to remain in the north or join the south if it votes to secede.

The governments of north and south can’t even agree on who should be allowed to vote in Abyei. President Bashir warned last week that failure to resolve other thorny issues, like how to share oil revenues, before the referenda could trigger a conflict much more serious than the previous civil war.

The Reverend Daniel Deng Bul, Episcopal archbishop of Sudan and bishop Juba in the south, also sees the danger of renewed bloodshed.

REV. DANIEL DENG BUL, Episcopal Archbishop of Sudan: There is a great fear, great risk of conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: There were reports last week that, to head off violence, the U.N. had deployed some of its 10,000 peacekeepers from South Sudan to potential hot spots along the border. President Obama said last week a peaceful resolution of this is one of his administration’s highest priorities.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you have an outbreak of war between the north and the south in Sudan, not only could that erupt in more violence that could lead to millions of deaths, but solving the problem in Darfur becomes that much more difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: At a U.N. meeting last month, amid concerns that preparations were lagging, Mr. Obama warned Khartoum to allow the vote to proceed peacefully. He suggested the U.S. might extend aid and normalize relations with Sudan if all went well.

And, last week, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and a U.N. delegation visited South Sudan, Darfur and Khartoum to assess the situation and urge the parties to prepare for the vote.

And Ambassador Susan Rice joins us now. Madam Ambassador, welcome.

SUSAN RICE, United States Ambassador to the United Nations: Thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re just back, as we reported, from Sudan. Tell us first what you found in the south. What did the leaders there tell you? How ready do they feel for this vote?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Margaret, there’s a huge amount of anticipation, expectation and anxiety about whether or not the referendum will happen on time and whether its results will be respected.

The people of Southern Sudan have waited for generations to have the opportunity to determine their future. And they are determined to have it occur on schedule on January 9. And, yet, the realities are, both logistical and political, that it’s uncertain that this will in fact be able to be conducted on time, as planned.

And so the United States and others in the international community are doing all we can to support the parties in their efforts to bring the referendum off on time, to provide the logistical and other support through the United Nations and other international entities to enable it to occur, and to deliver the very clear message to the parties that they need to uphold their commitment to hold this referendum on time.

Clearly, the people of the south and the government of the south want this. And it’s our aim to enable it to occur.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you met with some of the leadership, then, in the north in Khartoum. What’s your reading of them? What were they telling you about whether they’re ready to let this go forward?

SUSAN RICE: Well, what they said was quite clear. And we look forward now to the actions meeting their words.

What they said was that they too are committed to holding the referendum on January 9 without precondition. So, while there are many very sticky outstanding issues that need to be resolved, things like the demarcation of the border, how to share oil wealth in the aftermath of the referendum, and other such typical issues, what the government of the south says they want and what the government of the north committed to do is not to put any preconditions, not to demand that these issues be thoroughly resolved before the referendum can go forward.

So, we’re going to hold them to that commitment. And that’s crucial because, as urgent as it is for these issues to be resolved, many of them are very difficult and complex. They have been held off until the last minute.

And we’re trying to do all we can as the United States to support the two parties to resolve these issues, including the complex issue of Abyei on the border. But, frankly, time is short, and we need as much progress as possible, but no preconditions.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet — yet, President Bashir gave a speech on Saturday, and at least it was reported by the Sudanese News Agency that in fact he did say that, if the vote went ahead without resolving all these really complex issues, that there could be a very bloody conflict worse than the last civil war.

How did you read that?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I hope and expect that it wasn’t the statement of a precondition, but rather the statement of the importance of these issues being resolved. And, with that, we agree.

There’s clearly a need to resolve these crucial issues of how to demarcate the border, how to resolve the fate of Abyei, how to share wealth, among other issues, that have to be resolved if the two sides, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, are going to live in lasting peace.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some leaders in the south have accused the government in the north of already moving troops down near the border in preparation for war. Has the U.S. seen any evidence of that?

SUSAN RICE: We have not had the wherewithal to independently confirm, nor has the U.N. evidence of significant troop movements. But those accusations have been made by both sides. And we’re watching it very carefully.

And, very importantly, the United Nations is taking precautionary steps to ensure that in those areas that are the hottest potential flash points, like Abyei, there’s a beefed-up United Nations peacekeeping presence, both to provide early warning and to enhance the protection of civilians, should that be necessary.

MARGARET WARNER: But — but wouldn’t the U.S. have the satellite capability to tell whether troops were moving to the border?

SUSAN RICE: Margaret, I think you know American officials don’t discuss intelligence collection matters. That would be inappropriate.

But suffice it to say that we cannot independently verify at this point allegations of significant troop movements. Obviously there are minor movements all the time. But it’s an issue that we’re paying close attention to.

And it’s one that, really, we’re approaching from a preventive point view. It’s — we — we don’t want to come to this after the fact, once another significant clash has occurred. We are putting all of our effort from the highest levels of the U.S. government, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, special envoy General Gration, myself and many others, on the effort to prevent an outbreak of violence and resolve these difficult issues, so that they don’t become a flash point.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, you did just confirm that the U.N. has moved some peacekeepers into some of the potential hot spots. Do you think more will be needed? And does the U.S. support that? The Sudanese army was very — expressed anger at that this weekend.

SUSAN RICE: Well, it’s not clear whether more troops will be needed. We will obviously look to the judgment of the U.N. mission on the ground to make any recommendations to the Security Council, as would be the normal course, if they need more troops.

What they have done is to reconfigure with — within the troop complement of 10,000 that they have. And it’s not a buffer zone across the entire border, which the government of the north objected to, but, rather, an augmentation in particular hot spots just to deter and respond if necessary to any outbreaks of violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Susan Rice, thank you.

SUSAN RICE: Good to be with you, Margaret. Thank you.