JUBA, Sudan—The latest round of African Union-mediated talks in Khartoum between senior representatives of the National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement wrapped over the weekend, with no announcements on progress made during these latest meetings of the “Lead Negotiating Panel.”

Quick explanatory note: this joint NCP-SPLM body sits above the “cluster groups” negotiating on particular topics related to the future of Sudan after the south’s January 9 independence referendum, and the lead panel addresses issues that are bumped up from the cluster groups due to disagreements or problems at that level. The cluster groups are organized as follows: “international treaties and legal issues,” “economic and natural resources,” “citizenship,” and “security.” These groups meet separately, meaning that their progress has not been uniform and some of the more hot-button issues (read: oil-sharing, border security, citizenship) remain mired in disputes at the cluster group-level, hence how they end up at the lead negotiating panel, where the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan (AUHIP), led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, has a seat.

With polls set to open on January 9 for the south’s breakaway vote, a statement from a November 23 International Crisis Group report remains relevant:

The National Congress Party (NCP) seeks reassurances about its political and economic future; the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) seeks assurances the referendum will happen and its result be accepted. Because neither has gotten them, negotiations are stuck.

Whether or not this impasse will be broken–whether or not the negotiations can and will yield mutually beneficial arrangements and guarantees for both sides before January 9–is still unclear.

With the recognition that only those behind the closed doors in Khartoum and Juba and at the negotiating tables have the necessary insights to comment on this critical question, I wanted to share some observations gained from a conversation with an in-the-know individual close to the negotiations process. This person argued that Khartoum’s negotiators have an interest in loading the proverbial table with as many of the to-be-agreed-upon topics as possible, because this will decrease the likelihood of any overriding agreement before the January 9 vote. In other words, by adding as many of the contentious issues to the mix as possible, the ability to reach a “grand bargain”–which the SPLM wants as part of a guarantee of acceptance of the results of the referendum–is reduced. If Khartoum succeeds in keeping everything and the kitchen sink–from demarcation of the border before secession, to division of Sudan’s $34.7 billion debt, to citizenship rights for minority populations, to a settlement on the contested border zone of Abyei–on the table, they may also succeed in preventing a baseline agreement from being reached before January 9.

Rumor has it that the NCP is using a rationale along the lines of ‘if all elements of the CPA are not respected, than none of the elements remain valid.’ This is code for ‘given the outstanding disagreements on key CPA benchmarks like demarcation of the north-south border, which were supposed to be resolved before the referendum occurs, how can we accept the results of this other key benchmark?’

The importance of a formal understanding between the two parties, one that is mediated and confirmed by the AU panel, is clear: it could guarantee good-faith agreements to govern future relations between Sudan’s north and south in the immediate and longer-term aftermath of the referendum. Absent such an agreement, the worst-case scenarios that the United Nations has accounted for in its contingency planning are sadly more likely.

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