With only two days left until nearly 4 million southern Sudanese go to the polls to cast their vote for unity or secession, the international community has its eyes on Africa's largest country.
Dozens of senior United Nations officials, diplomats, journalists, and academic researchers crowded the room at the International Peace Institute's policy forum in New York on Friday, to discuss the highly anticipated southern Sudan referendum. The International Policy Institute is a New York-based international think tank focused on promoting conflict prevention and settlement and strengthening international peace and security institutions.
Sudan faces its "most critical moment in its history," said Hilde Frafjord Johnson, deputy executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The referendum is set to be held on Jan. 9, when inhabitants of southern Sudan will vote on whether to secede from the rest of the country. As the final phase of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the referendum concludes 20 years of war between the northern-based government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south -- a civil war that resulted in the deaths of over 2 million people.
"We all know that a partition of the country is the likely outcome, and we can soon witness one of the first divisions of an African state since the colonial era," said Johnson, who played a key role in brokering the 2005 CPA.
Despite the statement made by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Jan. 4 in the southern capital of Juba asserting a commitment to lasting peace and respect for the outcome of the vote, the situation in the embattled country remains tense.
"Sudanese leaders stand at a crossroads. The decisions they make today and in the next six to 12 months will be decisive for the future of the country," Johnson noted.
"It is not likely that any of the two parties deliberately want to reignite Africa's longest civil war. But it can still happen inadvertently, if the outcome of the referendum is questioned or seen as illegitimate there will be outbreaks of violence and it can spin out of control," she added.
According to senior UN officials, there are 3.9 million people registered to vote on Sunday. However, less than 3 percent of those registered will be voting in the northern part of the country.
UN peacekeeping operations in Sudan (UNMIS) completed their delivery of ballot papers on Jan. 5th to the 2,638 voting stations in southern Sudan and 174 centers in the northern part of the country. Southern Sudanese are also eligible to vote at 80 stations in Australia, Canada, Egypt Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Due to the high illiteracy rate in southern Sudan, the ballots carry two pictures -- one hand signifies secession, two clasped hands signify unity. Voters are required to put their fingerprint on the symbol of their choice.
Final results are expected to be announced around Feb. 6. If those results are contested, however, Johnson warns that it "could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence for southern Sudan, which in turn would lead to violence that could take a life of its own.
Meanwhile, Sudanese Ambassador to the UN Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman told forum participants that government in the north is " fully committed to the referendum" and "fully committed to the outcome."
However, Osman expressed Khartoum's reservations over the expected secession claiming it could set a precedent for other countries throughout the African continent. The referendum may " open a pandora's box for Africa."