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The CPA is achieving some good results. Bashir is not a popular leader and his need to raise his standing before April's vote persuaded him in February to agree to a cease-fire with the more Islamist of the Darfur rebels (and Chad, which supports them) in return for their support. The largest group, the Justice and Equality Movement, may even end up with Cabinet seats. In the south, the approaching referendum also seems to have convinced Bashir to accept the possibility that twice provoked the north to war. "If the result of the referendum is separation," he said in a speech in the south in January, "the Khartoum government will be the first to recognize this decision. We will support the newborn government in the south."
The old enemies have begun talks. Yet to be addressed are questions on where the border is, and how to split citizenry, national debt and millions of cattle. But in other areas, there has been progress. The north said it will raise by 40 the number of southern seats in the Sudanese national parliament to give the south an effective veto on any proposed changes to the CPA. And at least one potential flash point the south's oil might be defused. The south's Minister for Presidential Affairs, Luka Biong Deng, told TIME in February his government would continue splitting oil revenue with Khartoum after independence. Given half a century of hostility and intransigence between the two sides, Gration calls such cooperation "phenomenal."
But doubts remain. For one thing, Bashir might not be sincere. "The NCP [the ruling National Congress Party] takes a long-term view," says John Ashworth, of the IKV Pax Christi aid group and a Sudan veteran of 27 years. "They are prepared to take setbacks and retreat. They're also prepared to lie and say anything." The International Crisis Group's Sudan specialist Fouad Hikmat concurs: "Some people in the NCP say, 'There will be no referendum instead we will burn this house.' And they can do it." One reason for the north to plan secretly to stop the south breaking away could be an understandable desire to avoid follow-on Balkanization. South Kordofan and Blue Nile state, in particular, are a concern: both previously fought with the south but will likely end up on the northern side of the border.
There's also the question of economic viability. Most of the oil is in the south, hence Deng's offer to share oil revenue. "People think I'm selling out," he says. "I'm trying to prevent a [northern] collapse that would affect not just us but Egypt, Chad, Libya and Ethiopia."
Concern is also rising over the south's internal divisions. The prospect of independence has brought tribe, clan and internal SPLM rivalries to the fore. Around 2,500 people died in tribal clashes over land in 2009, mostly along the border with the north, and many of them among southerners. Dozens of "independent" SPLM candidates will run against official SPLM nominees in April.
Kicking off his party's campaign on Feb. 24, the south's President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, was hardly encouraging. He ordered his troops "not to disrupt or intimidate" rivals and warned his new southern opponents not to campaign "using firearms." Says one veteran southern Sudan aid worker: "Not only is there no capacity in the government, there often seems like there's no interest in setting some up. People are just grabbing pieces for themselves."
Finally, there are doubts about the world's involvement. Obama's strategy is weakened by dissenters inside his Administration: Gration favors engagement; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice wants more aggression. Such "mixed support" for engagement inevitably leads to "mixed results," says Carter. His support for the CPA and the general election it envisages is weakened by its transformation into a largely empty exercise by the pullout of most opposition parties, citing abuse, intimidation and violation of electoral law. (On April 6 a spokesman for the State Department hinted the U.S. favored postponing the vote until a more meaningful contest could take place.) And while every aid project is asked whether the money is being well spent, in southern Sudan there is a scandal over it not being used at all. In 2005, the world set up a $526 million Southern Sudan Multi-Donor Trust Fund, administered by the World Bank, to pay for roads, running water, agriculture, health and education for the south's 8-9 million people. In February a high-level World Bank delegation spent two weeks in the south investigating why its staff had spent only $217 million. The visitors concluded they were "not satisfied" with the Sudan team's performance. Others say the bank was simply out of its depth, unable to figure out how to engage with a southern administration that, for example, didn't have a bank account.
Does southern Sudan have any hope of working? "I can't say the U.S. was ready when it got independence," notes Carter. Gressly argues South Sudan doesn't have to be fully formed at first, particularly if the global mission to build it continues, as he expects, for "10 to 15 to 20 years." And despite the World Bank holdup, there is progress. Juba may not look like much, but at least it looks like something. "There used to be nothing," says Itto. Some point to the Carter Center's spectacular recent advances in its fight against Guinea worm, a potentially lethal parasite carried by water, as proof, as Carter says, "that success is possible."
A single working health program is hardly a foundation for a nation. But however dim the prospects of an independent South Sudan, any alternative is hard to contemplate. It was war that shattered the south. Denying it independence, especially at this late stage, would mean more fighting. Announcing his new Sudan strategy, Obama said: "It will not be easy and there are no simple answers to the extraordinary challenges that confront this part of the world." War used to be Khartoum's answer to many of Sudan's challenges. That things are becoming more complicated is a reason for hope.