Zach Vertin
Zach Vertin. Photo by IGG
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Zach Vertin is the Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a highly-respected independent non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving conflicts. The ICG advises governments and intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations, European Union and World Bank.

Vertin spoke to Haaretz from Juba - the capital of southern Sudan - where he is observing the referendum there, in which the south is considering secession.

This is a part of the world which is no stranger to civil war. The first internecine conflict, from 1963 until 1972, killed half a million people; the second, from 1983 until 2005, saw 2 million dead.

Today, while there is talk of a new war on the horizon, the voting so far has taken place relatively peacefully, with the exception of the Abyei area, where 33 people were killed.

Can you give us an idea of how the voting is going and what the mood is there? Is illiteracy a problem at all?

The mood in Juba and across southern Sudan is one of jubilation. Thousands have turned out to vote, standing in long queues outside polling stations. Many are dressed in their Sunday best, some camped out the night before so as to be among the first to vote. Many mothers brought babies along to share in the historic moment. Spirits are remarkably high. Voters cast their ballot with a thumbprint, placed in one of two boxes. One box reads 'Unity' and is accompanied by a picture of clasped hands; the other box reads 'Secession' and is accompanied by a single hand.

Has there been any violence?

There were isolated incidents of violence in one border state, as well as in the contested Abyei region, but both appear to be contained. Neither event was directly related to, or had any impact on, the polling exercise. I don't expect to see any major violence for the rest of the week.

Is there any doubt that the south will vote for independence?

Most everyone would agree that a vote for southern secession is almost certain.

What does the timetable look like?

The voting will last seven days, ending January 15. Preliminary results will be posted at voting centers that day. Countrywide results will be announced by the end of the month, and later finalized in mid-February. But we should have a clear idea of the outcome well before then. Independence is likely to then be realized in July 2011, when the current north-south peace agreement expires.

Salva Kiir is expected to become the president of the south, should they secede. Can you give any sense of what kind of leader you think he would be and what he might need to turn his attention to first?

Salva Kiir will indeed preside over the transition, and the challenges will be many. As soon as the jubilation of the referendum subsides, Kiir and his counterparts in the north must return to the negotiating table, as critical foundations for a constructive north-south relationship are yet to be laid. A solution to the volatile Abyei region must be negotatied, and the shared north-south border demarcated. Post-referendum arrangements must be agreed on citizenship and nationality, oil and water sharing, assets and liabilities, currency, security, and international treaties/obligations. Progress now toward a series of mutually-beneficial arrangements will facilitate a smooth transition to independence and provide a basis for two viable states in north and south.

Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir has promised to allow the south to secede if that is their wish. Do you believe the north will honor that promise?

Many in the north are saddened by the circumstances, but now resigned to the reality of partition. While opposed to secession, the ruling party is increasingly focused on securing its own political and economic future in the north, as its future is uncertain. Southern Sudan's right to self-determination is guaranteed by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, an accord backed by the African Union, United Nations, and the Arab League, among others. Thus, the government in Khartoum has an obligation to honor the outcome, and would find it incredibly difficult to deny the result or subsequently withhold recognition. Most importantly, the parties must then work to lay the foundations for a constructive post-referendum relationship. Negotiations must promptly resume to determine a host of key critical issues that must be resolved, regardless of the vote's outcome. These include citizenship and nationality, demarcation of the shared border, management of natural resources, security, assets and liabilities, currency and international treaties and obligations.

What will independence mean in terms of natural resources - namely oil - on southern lands?

Oil comprises a major portion of government revenues in both Khartoum and Juba. The oil is primarily in the south, but the infrastructure to exploit that oil, the pipelines, refineries, and export terminals, are in the north. Thus, the two sides need each other. For this reason, I think the parties will come to an agreement in which both can benefit. In some sense, their mutual reliance is a disincentive to a new north-south conflict.