Sudan, Africa's largest country, the world's tenth largest and one of its poorest, faces partition in a referendum scheduled for January 9. The country is already effectively divided. Seventy per cent of the 43-million population are Sunnis and largely occupy the north; in the south, most are animists and about five per cent belong to various Christian sects. The two regions have maintained an uneasy truce since a 2005 agreement ended a savage 22-year civil war in which an estimated two million were killed and four million displaced. The six-year conflict in Darfur still causes echoes: President Omar al-Bashir is the only serving head of state indicted for genocide. Furthermore, fearing post-referendum violence, about 75,000 of the 1.5 million southerners who fled the civil war have returned south by road and in barge-convoys along the White Nile. Increasingly confrontational statements have come from the national capital Khartoum and the southern regional capital Juba. The U.N.-backed Satellite Sentinel Project, which is intended to reduce the risk of genocide by providing independent surveillance and rapid reportage, says both sides are massing troops on the north-south border.

There are other reasons why the referendum could be a tragedy in the making. The al-Bashir government insists on a 60 per cent turnout, an excessive requirement in an enormous country with a wretched transport infrastructure and an inefficient administration. Even the electoral register is a bone of contention; in the oil-rich border province of Abyei, Khartoum wants the nomadic Misseriya tribe registered, though they spend only the dry season there. Juba wants the resident population registered. Abyei is also to have a separate and simultaneous referendum on whether to retain its special administrative status in the north or join southern Sudan. Secondly, neighbouring states have an interest in the outcome of the national referendum. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda will want deals with Juba over Nile water. Other foreign powers have their own stake, particularly in southern oil reserves and farmland. WikiLeaks cables confirm U.S. acceptance of Kenyan participation in supplying Ukrainian tanks to southern forces. Almost farcically, that matter came to light when Somali pirates hijacked a ship carrying the tanks to Kenya; the cables also show that the U.S. tried to deny all knowledge of the shipment. As so often, Sudan's tragedies are exacerbated by the colonial legacy — Sudan itself is a 19th-century British creation — and continuing great-power interference. After all that they have suffered, the people of Sudan deserve better from their own leaders and the rest of the world.

More In: Editorial | Opinion