As the clock counts down toward voting day, there are clear signs that things will go smoothly.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called the situation “a ticking time bomb.”

A team of British researchers are so concerned about the prospects of a conflict that they published a study on the possible price tag: $100 billion.

Even George Clooney is focusing on it and has joined with Google to monitor the potential battlefields, by satellite imagery.

But what, really, are the chances that the independence referendum in southern Sudan on January 9, the culmination of a peace process that ended decades of civil war between north and south, will set off another one?

It seems the chances are slim and getting slimmer.

True, Sudan is a vast, poor country with a long track record of conflict. Arms are easy to get here and militias roam just about every corner of the country. The referendum will indeed be delicate because the south will most likely vote (by about 99 per cent) to secede, splitting the largest country in Africa in two and taking with it most of Sudan's oil.

But as the clock counts down toward voting day, despite earlier prognostications of a delay, there are more and more signs that things will go smoothly.

Just last week, Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, publicly pledged to help his “southern brothers” and said he would be “the first to recognise the south.”

“The ball is in your court,” he said at a rally.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, is also confident the vote will be peaceful. “I don't feel any inclination to hostilities between the two parties,” he said, according to Sudan's news agency.

Charges of genocide

The stakes are so high that neither side, the Islamist northern government or the former rebels who lead southern Sudan, seems to want to be sucked into a war again, or at least to start one. Over the past year, there has been such a steady drumbeat of Armageddon predictions that most potential problems have already been prepared for and Western diplomats have spent countless hours counselling both sides. The stage is now set for the vote to be historic and highly emotional, but not catastrophic.

Both sides, according to many analysts, are more pragmatic than they are often given credit for. Despite being portrayed as careless brutes in many Western countries, the Islamist cabal that controls Sudan, starting with Mr. Bashir, has shown surprising elasticity.

Mr. Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, the United States and the United Nations have imposed sanctions on northern Sudan and the rebellion in Darfur continues to grind on. But Mr. Bashir and company remain firmly in control in Khartoum, the capital, which continues to get hefty diplomatic and financial support from China and the Arab world. And now they seem especially eager to normalise relations with the West and know that interference with the referendum would torpedo any chance of that happening.

Though the north will clearly lose out if the south breaks off, northern leaders seem to have accepted that there is little they can do about it. According to Mohammed Hamad, a political science professor in Khartoum, Mr. Bashir will be reluctant to go to war because “others will use it as an excuse, and Israel and the U.S. will try to depose the regime.”

Whether there is any truth to this theory may be immaterial, since many in Khartoum seem to firmly believe it.

The southern leaders, for their part, do not want a war. Why would they? They are on the verge of peacefully achieving what has taken decades of sacrifice. More than two million people were killed in the north-south civil war, which began in the 1950s and pitted animist and Christian rebels in the south against Arab rulers in the north.

Oil issue

The southern leaders have been enjoying a taste of autonomy since 2005, when a north-south peace treaty was signed. They have rebuilt towns and invested hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, in roads, ministries, schools and factories, much of which could be bombed into oblivion in a few days by the north's growing air force. To keep their dreams of independence alive, the southerners seem ready to make concessions. This includes sharing the oil.

“We're not about to cut the pipes,” said Gideon Gatpan Thoar, the information minister for Unity State, one of the oil-rich states in the south.

Oil may ultimately hold Sudan together. Though the south produces about 75 per cent of Sudan's crude, it is landlocked, and the pipeline to export the oil runs through the north. Mr. Thoar said it would be a “disaster” to do anything to stop the flow of oil, which provides both north and south with a huge percentage of government revenue.

On their side, the northerners seem ready to give up some oil and take the economic hit.

“The north will suffer,” said Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, a top adviser to Mr. Bashir. “We expect, after secession and the loss of oil revenue, that we will have to impose more stringent economic measures. Definitely there is going to be a setback at the very beginning.”

Uncontrolled elements

The biggest risk, then, that a war will break out seems to lie in the uncontrolled elements, the “unknown unknowns,” as former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said.

For example, in Abyei, one disputed area along the yet-to-be-demarcated north-south border, there are militias aligned to the north and to the south, but they are not necessarily controlled by either. According to several analysts, these militias could fire the first shots, possibly provoked by a land dispute. Then the northern and southern armies, both of which have been buying enormous quantities of weapons in recent years, could pile in.

Beyond that, there are rebels in Darfur in the west, rebels in the east, rebels in the Nuba Mountains and along the Nile River, raising fears that if war erupted, it could spread rapidly.

“I can imagine the east going off; I can imagine Darfur going off; I can imagine the rest of the Sudan; but to disintegrate this area, it is difficult,” said Mr. Hamad, the political science professor in Khartoum, referring to the central Sudanese heartland around the Nile. “The inhabitants here are not tribal. I have never consulted my tribal elders to solve any problems. I go to the police, I go to school.”

He continued: “The people of central Sudan — and this is very important for you to understand the future of Sudan — are pro-state, and they accept the government, and when they depose a government, they depose it to bring a better government.”

“There will be decay, maybe,” he said, after the separation of the south. “But disintegration, no.”

He and others also predicted that in coming days, northern and southern leaders might agree to divide the Abyei territory, which would significantly reduce the chances of a conflict.— © New York Times News Service

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