IN one month from today the largest nation in Africa may be split in half as the southern part of Sudan votes in a referendum on separation from the north. This referendum was part of the so-called comprehensive peace agreement which in 2005 brought to an end the terrible twenty-year civil war between the Arab-led North and the part Christian--part animist South which cost two million lives. The fact that it has taken five years to implement this provision of the agreement shows how unwilling the Sudanese government in Khartoum has been to risk the severance of the part of the land of one million square miles where three-quarters of Sudan's oil production is based.
There is no doubt among UN and Western observers involved in the organisation of the referendum that its result will be an overwhelming vote for separation. The south has been semi-autonomous for the past few years and is single-minded about its wish to cut dependence on Khartoum. However, doubts persist about whether the northern government will find a reason even at this late stage to postpone voting or will refuse to implement the outcome pending further negotiations -- especially about oil revenues -- which could continue for years.
The possibility of a resumption of the civil war is generally dismissed but it cannot be ruled out totally if the referendum does not take place or its result is not respected.