KHARTOUM, Sudan — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a "ticking time bomb."
Southern Sudan's January referendum on independence had a lot of people around the world worried — and for good reason.
If it were held properly, the Sudanese government in the north faced the certain loss of not just a third of its land but also 80 percent of its oil. If the vote were blocked, or even delayed, conflict probably would erupt.
Yet on Jan. 9, exactly as scheduled, south Sudanese lined up patiently, casting their ballots. The polls closed quietly after seven days of voting. On Feb. 7, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir officially certified the results: a whopping 99 percent decision to secede.
There were no legal challenges, no concerted last-minute attack along the border, no swooping attempt by the north to take the oil fields, no war. On July 9, the Republic of South Sudan is set to join the ranks of global nationhood.
If Sudan truly had been a time bomb, it was defused. But how?
Through interviews with McClatchy in Khartoum in the north and Juba in the south, officials who were deeply involved in the process described a remarkable series of unfolding events and a roller-coaster final six months, which eventually forced a pariah regime to concede the partition of its country.
"There weren't many options left for the NCP besides war, and they didn't have the stomach for it," said a senior Western diplomat, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The diplomat was speaking of Bashir's National Congress Party.
The officials' inside accounts give key insights into the possibilities of international diplomacy in the 21st century, even in troubled cases of long-isolated regimes.
For the U.S., the lessons are both gratifying and humbling, sketching out not only the real potential but also perhaps the outer limits of U.S. power in today's increasingly multi-polar world.
No other outside country poured more resources into ensuring a peaceful outcome in Sudan, a clear foreign-policy success story of the Obama administration.
Yet over a decade of direct engagement, the U.S. slowly shifted from prime mediator to backseat supporter, edged out of its central seat at the negotiating table to a role of offering pot-sweetening side deals.
In the end, the U.S. provided one key part of a multilateral tsunami that left Bashir — already boxed in by mounting internal constraints and an increasingly politically empowered south — little wiggle room.
For decades, Sudan's black African south smoldered in conflict with the Arab government in the north, killing 2 million people.
In 2001, under pressure from a congressional bloc of conservative Christians and African-Americans, President George W. Bush appointed former Sen. John Danforth as special envoy to Sudan.
Danforth jumped into Kenya-hosted talks between the Sudanese government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement, where he played a key brokering role. A cease-fire came in early 2002. Three grueling years of negotiations later, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, granting the south autonomy and a key slice of oil revenues until it could vote on full independence through a referendum in six years.
It was a landmark achievement, bringing an end to what was Africa's longest-running war. The world, relieved, shifted its focus to Sudan's crisis in Darfur.
Few think that the National Congress Party signed the peace deal ever figuring that it would be cornered into holding the referendum. Yet the deal proved resilient. Given its own revenue base and allowed to keep its own standing army, Southern Sudan started acting as an independent nation, even issuing visas.
Gradually, Sudan slid into a de facto two-nation state. Southern Sudan's confidence grew, and the international community became comfortable with a southern secession that appeared more and more like a continuation — not the disruption — of the status quo.
Exit routes for the National Congress Party dwindled, especially peaceful ones. With both sides re-arming and digging in, the alternative — war — appeared more and more disastrous.
Then, in 2010, the crisis expanded. From a technical standpoint, time was running out to hold the referendum.
Diplomatic officials knew that any delay would open a potentially bloody can of worms. The south threatened unilateral action if the vote were delayed past January 2011, fearing indefinite postponement.
The fate of Sudan now fell not just on politicians, but on technocrats, too.
When a referendum commission was finally established last July, the race against time began. Except that it didn't. The commission didn't begin work, because of an internal staffing feud. The dispute ran into September.
"The pressure was palpable on a day-to-day basis that this was becoming too late to do," said a Western diplomat, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record and thus asked not to be identified.
When the commission finally became operational in mid-September, U.S. and U.N. planners flooded in with ready-made plans, and the referendum wheels started turning. The U.S., which altogether spent more than $60 million on the referendum, started procuring voter registration materials and training workers.
The Obama administration kicked its efforts into higher gear, appointing veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman to bolster the negotiations and giving Sudan policy top-level attention.
"We started meeting at the National Security Council two to three times a week," said Sudan special envoy Scott Gration, who now will become the U.S. ambassador to Kenya. "We looked at all the options. There was a lot of effort that spanned the entire administration."
In Sudan, the momentum began to shift. Referendum preparations proceeded. The 90-year-old referendum chair, Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, a northerner whom Western officials widely suspected at first of being a tool of the National Congress Party, turned out to be stubbornly independent.
"The north made a mistake by trying to force him to do things and blame him for things. Then he got even more independent," said a senior Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more freely.
Voter registration took place in November, clearing the biggest hurdle to an on-time vote. After that, said Zach Vertin of the International Crisis Group, the train "gathered speed and became impossible to derail."
With the referendum slipping out of his hands, Bashir's options narrowed even more.
During the war, the north's main military tactic was to exploit southern divisions by arming and supporting dissidents. Some thought that Bashir might pull out the old playbook.
This possibility fell apart in October, when southern leader Salva Kiir brought together all the south's political and military forces in a solidarity conference, bringing old enemies back into the fold under the banner of the referendum.
Unable to disrupt the vote through a proxy war, Bashir's only real option left was direct abrogation of the peace deal.
No one wanted that. The world's diverse interests were now in rare alignment. The U.S. and the West, the African Union, the U.N., Sudan's neighbors and even China — the main recipient of Sudanese crude — lined up to press Bashir to allow a peaceful separation.
The U.S., which had ceded its negotiating mantle under Gration to former South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union, chose to support the Mbeki-facilitated negotiations from behind, while negotiating directly with Khartoum on its own.
Khartoum wanted U.S. economic sanctions lifted and its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism removed. In November, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made an offer on behalf of President Barack Obama to remove the sponsor of terrorism label in exchange for a peaceful referendum. U.S. sanctions would, however, be lifted only after Darfur was resolved.
It was a key piece of a wider puzzle. The outside voices unavoidable, reality set in for Sudan's northern rulers. As the south was offering to pay back some of the lost oil, the north couldn't risk a war that could block the pipelines' flow altogether. With plenty of problems back home, a new conflict just didn't make sense.
By the time Bashir put out the presidential decree Feb. 7 accepting the referendum results, nothing seemed more inevitable.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
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