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Official: Southern Sudan could unilaterally secede

By David McKenzie, CNN
  • A referendum on independence is set for January
  • A unilateral declaration of independence could occur, former diplomat says
  • Many issues about the referendum are unresolved, including who can vote
  • Southern Sudan is roughly the size of France
  • Sudan

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Southern Sudan, the autonomous region in Sudan, may unilaterally declare its sovereignty, since the central government isn't doing enough to plan and stage a referendum on independence by January, an influential political figure told CNN on Thursday.

³We have reached a point of no return," John Duku, Southern Sudanšs former chief diplomat to East Africa, told CNN. "The independence of South Sudan cannot be stopped by anybody now."

Duku was referring to the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 between Southern Sudanese rebels and the Khartoum government, led by Omar al Bashir.

The agreement -- which ended a 21-year north-south civil war that killed 2 million people and forced about 4 million others from their homes -- calls for a January referendum on independence for the region.

Duku, an influential figure in Southern Sudanese politics, warned that there has been little civil education about the vote and that key issues on the polling have yet to be sorted out.

"The clock is ticking," said Duku, who now heads a civil society organization. "We have 129 days left to go to the referendum."

The Khartoum government has repeatedly claimed that it is committed to the peace agreement, but Duku said al Bashir has been lying to the International community and the African Union.

Southern Sudanese are getting nervous about the looming deadline of the referendum, analysts say, and many want to see more progress made on the outstanding political issues, including who will be eligible to vote.

"There is continued political wrangling about the vote," said Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, "but there is definitely a sense of urgency all around to try and hold the referendum on time."

Vertin said there are some factions of the ruling National Congress Party that are dragging their feet, but that a unilateral declaration of independence is an unlikely outcome.

"It is something nobody really wants," said Vertin.

Michael Majok Ayom, a representative of Southern Sudan in Kenya, disagreed with Duku, saying the government is committed to the referendum.

Southern Sudan is roughly the size of France, but it has few paved roads, and the civil war left it severely underdeveloped. The territory has some of the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and most agree that the region has a huge potential for future development or for renewed conflict.