Cairo - The U.S. has rejected an Egyptian proposal for a "confederation" between northern and southern Sudan, insisting that a Jan. 9 referendum - which will determine the fate of the south - go ahead as scheduled. According to Egyptian analysts, the move proves Washington's determination to see Africa's largest country split in two.
"The US is dead-set on seeing the emergence of an independent state of Southern Sudan to achieve political aims on the African continent," Hani Raslan, expert in Sudanese affairs at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS.
A peace agreement was signed in 2005 between Sudan's ruling National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the Kenyan city Naivasha. The agreement aimed at halting the longstanding civil war between north and south that had flared up intermittently since the 1950s.
Contentiously, the agreement - backed by the U.S. and the African Union - stipulated that a referendum eventually be held in the south on proposed independence from the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The agreement also called for a referendum in central Sudan's oil-rich Abyei region to decide whether it would join the north or the south.
Both referendums are slated for Jan. 9 next year. As it now stands, the majority of southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote in favour of independence.
Hardly relishing the notion of a brand new country to its south - with whom it would presumably have to share coveted Nile water - Egypt has, since 2005, consistently worked towards maintaining Sudan's political unity.
"Egypt has stepped up investment in southern Sudan, where it has launched several major infrastructure projects," said Raslan. "It has also been dispatching frequent high-level diplomatic missions to the provisional southern government in Juba."
On Nov. 3, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit noted that within the last five years Egypt had pumped more than 500 million Egyptian pounds (87 million dollars) into projects in southern Sudan - including hospitals, schools and power stations - "in hope of convincing the people of southern Sudan to choose unity over secession."
The minister also stressed Egypt's concern over the fact that, with the referendum right around the corner, serious issues - which could eventually lead to conflict - remained unresolved between the two sides. These, he said, included border demarcation, distribution of natural resources, especially petroleum, migration issues, and the fate of the Abyei region.
Aboul-Gheit went on to suggest that, rather than choosing outright independence, southern Sudan should opt for a "confederation" with the north. "This means they would be two independent countries, but would share a single currency and have a single foreign policy," he explained.
In light of the several outstanding issues between north and south, secession, he warned, "could lead to violence."
A study released Nov. 25 by international NGOs Frontier and Aegis warned of the possibility of renewed civil war if outstanding differences were not resolved. Besides bringing death and displacement beyond measure, the report noted, such a scenario would likely cost Sudan alone more than 100 billion dollars.
The cost of such a war to Egypt, the report suggested, "could average over 7 billion dollars per year."
"Egypt made its confederation proposal in hope of preserving the close north- south relationship, through which secondary issues might be worked out amicably," said Raslan. "But without such a close relationship, Egypt fears these issues could lead to war if the south becomes independent before they're resolved."
Despite Egypt's concerns, the U.S. soon stated its rejection of the proposal. A week after Egypt first tabled the idea, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley declared that the fate of southern Sudan would be left to its people to decide.
According to Raslan, Washington's insistence on seeing an independent state of Southern Sudan "has less to do with the popular will of the southern Sudanese people than it does with U.S. geo-political ambitions.
"In the final days of the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. Defence Department established Africa Command, or AFRICOM, mandated with handling military operations in Africa. And a central component of this new regional command will be a massive military base, which the U.S. hopes to set up in southern Sudan.
"By establishing a strong military presence in the new country, the U.S. also hopes to contain the decidedly Islamic nature of northern Sudan," he said.
The population of northern Sudan is predominantly Muslim, while that of Southern Sudan is mostly Christian and animist.
Helmy Shaarawi, director of the Cairo-based Arab-Africa Research Centre, agreed. He contrasted Washington's enthusiasm for the Sudan referendum to its indifference to a similar referendum proposal for India's disputed Kashmir region.
"In 1948, the UN Security Council issued resolution No. 47 calling for a referendum in Kashmir to determine whether the region would join India or Pakistan," Shaarawi told IPS. "Yet despite the fact that most Kashmiri people want the referendum, and even though Kashmir continues to suffer political violence, U.S. and western officials remain entirely indifferent to the idea."
The first tangible steps towards the independence of southern Sudan were taken in mid-November, when the provisional Juba government began registering voters.
"Secession at this point appears a fait accompli," said Raslan. "As for the referendum itself - that's merely a formality."
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