Juba, Sudan—Some alarming news out of Khartoum this weekend regarding the southern Sudanese referendum: Tariq Osman, a member of the 9-person Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, told reporters on Saturday that he didn’t think the referendum could be held on time. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the formerly warring North and South set the date for this vote on January 9, 2011; while other dates in the accord’s timeline have slipped, southerners have always viewed the referendum’s date as set in stone.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my time in southern Sudan to date, it’s that anything from blatant misinformation to whispered rumors can easily impact, if not shape, reality. The reported news of a northern Sudanese member of the referendum commission suggesting that the vote should be delayed could quickly morph into the public perception that the Khartoum government is actively pushing the South’s ruling SPLM party to agree to delay the referendum.

Anything is possible but the bottom line is that tensions are escalating in both Khartoum and Juba over stalled referendum preparations. Recent interviews I’ve conducted with local civil society activists indicate frustration and fear that the referendum, like the recent elections, could be delayed, deeply flawed, or both. The key difference between the April 2010 national elections and the southern referendum are the extremely high stakes of the upcoming vote; the specter of a new country in Africa is of course already captivating the attention of diplomats, but the prospect of freedom has long been on the minds of the southern Sudanese.

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