Given the stunning lack of serious coverage of the issue in American papers, readers can be forgiven if they are not up to speed on the situation in Sudan, where we might see the formation of a new country at the beginning of the new year – but probably not.  Southern Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence from Northern Sudan on January 9, 2011 – and most observers say that the southern Sudanese will vote for independence by a wide margin.  This is not good news for the Sudanese government in Khartoum, not least because most of the oil in Sudan is in the south.  So, we have seen various efforts to stall the referendum, which was promised in 2005 as part of a peace deal to end the Sudanese civil war, because of procedural or logistical issues.  This was worrying, as it showed a lack of commitment on the part of Khartoum . . . and the possibility they would not honor this deal.  Remember, the Sudanese government are the lovely people who brought us the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, so they have a history of, shall we say, problematic behavior.

Say what you will about these subtle hints that I think suggest this referendum will not play out, the signals of a coming disaster are starting to become too clear to ignore.  The BBC (among others) notes that the Sudanese government is blocking further UN presence along the buffer between North and South Sudan.  If you read between the lines, the dialogue here is chilling:

Officials at the UN said the decision had been made following an appeal from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who was concerned the North was preparing for war.

But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s security adviser, Salah Gosh, rejected the plan, saying troops could not be deployed without the consent of the government.

Ibrahim Ghandour, another leading politician in Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), said any tension in the region could be sorted out between the two sides, so a buffer zone between North and South was not necessary.

First, Gosh is correct – the UN doesn’t really have a lot of good mechanisms for ordering countries around.  Unless the security council gets serious and orders a military action a la Kuwait in the early 1990s, UN Peacekeepers do operate at the will of the national government . . . which right now sits in Khartoum.  But for Gosh and for Ghandour to argue against more peacekeepers is worrying . . . peacekeepers are only meant to prevent violence.  Arguing against their presence makes sense only if . . . you are planning violence.  And when you hear the Southern Sudanese leader saying he fears the North is planning war, and he would love more peacekeepers . . . figure it out, people.  Things are about to go very, very badly in Sudan.

There are all sorts of reasons this matters.  First, the human suffering associated with war is never a good thing, and should be prevented whenever possible.  Second, this referendum is meant to be a democratic expression of the will of the people, and if we sit by and let this process fail or devolve into violence, we lose any high ground when discussing governance with other countries.  Further, they would lose confidence in our support for them – basically, we’d be saying that we really want to help, unless, of course, things get ugly.  In which case, we’ll just stand by and watch.  Not a real powerful stance.  Third, if this blows up, the likelihood of regional impacts is very, very high – the conflict in Northern Uganda is intimately linked to the long standing tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan.  A shooting war in Sudan will likely lead to greater violence in Northern Uganda.  Fourth, remember Darfur?  Also in Sudan, folks – and most of that violence started when the North-South civil war was settled, giving the government in Khartoum the time and resources to address what they saw as a threat to their authority in Darfur.  If a new North-South war starts, the impact on Darfur (and the people who fled to neighboring Chad) is difficult to predict.

And let’s not even wade into the large international interest in Sudanese oil.  I don’t even want to think about what might happen to the people in this region if international powers start picking sides.

If there were ever a moment where a forceful statement from the US and Europe could make a difference for a lot of people, this is it.  A real threat to intercede in this referendum before there is a conflict by a power or powers large enough to turn back the Sudanese Army could probably stop this before it starts . . . and earn us a lot of goodwill from the people of the region, even as it infuriates Khartoum.  Then again, who the hell cares what a government headed by an indicted war criminal thinks?  Has there ever been an easier choice for us?