Rarely have there been so many warnings about what could go wrong. But with a bit of luck and a following wind, the referendum in southern Sudan, which starts this weekend, just might turn out all right.

War will break out again. There’ll be a refugee crisis. The government in Khartoum won’t allow the south to secede. They won’t be able to agree a deal on oil rights. The south will become a cripplingly poor, landlocked state. And so on. ENOUGH, OXFAM, Global Witness and dozens of other NGOs have been bombarding anyone who’ll listen with their worries.

But last Monday, President Omar al Bashir – indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur and a hate figure for many in the south – went to the southern capital Juba and declared that he would respect the result of the referendum…which will inevitably be for independence. He pledged to resolve questions of citizenship, borders and other contentious issues in the next six months, so Africa’s new country can be born in July.

Should we believe him? Many would not, because of his record. Yet some analysts now think that such is the mutual dependency between north and south Sudan, and so great the international pressure, northern politicians realise that their best policy is to accommodate the south’s desire to secede. Even the Chinese have accepted that the south will go its own way, despite their unconditional support for the Khartoum government, and their hatred of countries breaking up (think Tibet and Xinjiang).

Why this apparent outbreak of peaceful co-existence? Probably because, while 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil is in the south, all the pipelines go north. It will take at least three years to build a pipeline from the southern oil fields to Lamu, off the Kenyan coast.

The southern government has pretty much no alternative source of revenue apart from aid. The northern government is also reliant on oil. So the two will have to reach some kind of deal if either is to prosper.

Of course it’s difficult. UNHCR says 2,000 people a day are heading south from Khartoum to vote and re-settle, travelling by bus or barge, most bringing everything they own: beds, sofa seats, chairs, tables, cooking pans and utensils, corrugated iron sheets, radios, TV sets, fridges and small generators.

There will most likely be clashes in contested border areas. But maybe we can be optimistic about this new country. The southerners of course want it to work. And for the moment, it seems that the northerners are going to let it happen.

Voting: 9-15 January
Results expected: around 14 February
Declaration of Independence expected: 9 July

The people of southern Sudan, who are primarily African Christians, are voting on whether to secede from the north, which is predominantly Arabised and Muslim. There is little doubt they will vote yes. President Omar al Bashir of Sudan seems to be accepting this inevitability – the referendum was written into the peace accord which ended the civil war between north and south five years ago. But there’s still a lot to sort out, not least how to deal with the fact that the south has 80 per cent of the oil, but all the refineries and pipelines are in the north.

South Sudan, which will become a new country, has almost no paved roads and is desperately undeveloped. There are also issues around the borders and the fate of southerners who live in the north – having fled there during the war as refugees – which will have to be resolved during the period between the referendum result being announced and the birth of the new nation.

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