Could Sudan's south become the world's newest country?

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Crossing Africa and Arabia’s cultural frontiers is Sudan. The largest country in Africa (as well as one of its most complex) Sudan has always had something of a bad boy reputation in the West. Consequently few foreigners have ever visited.

This is a huge oversight because this is a land of golden pyramids, coral reefs swarming with thousands of blood red fish, temples devoted to long-dead religions and swamps filled with a million migrating antelope. It's also a land where a White Nile and a Blue Nile become just one. And that’s before we even mention the people who are almost universally described as the friendliest and most hospitable on the entire continent.

But all is far from perfect in Sudan. Ever since independence from Britain in 1956 the country has been plagued with civil unrest. Out in the far west of Sudan, Darfur has been making headlines for the past decade, while in the south, two conflicts (which together spanned 40 of the past 55 years) between southern rebels and the government in Khartoum, finally drew to a close with the signing of a peace deal in 2005. The cornerstone of this deal was that on January 9th 2011, southerners would vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of a united Sudan or opt for independence from Khartoum.

This day of reckoning is fast approaching and all indications point to the south Sudanese voting for secession. If this happens, in early January the world’s newest country will be born. Even discounting the 40 years of war with its estimated combined total of 2.4 million deaths, the build-up to this referendum has not been easy and, if the south does vote for independence, the path ahead is likely to be turbulent.

One of the biggest sticking points to any separation is black gold. Sudan is an oil-rich state and the vast majority of that oil is found in the south of the country, but it’s all pumped to the Red Sea ports in the north. How the oil wealth will be divided up between the two areas remains unresolved. Other crucial points yet to be solved include the fact that the north-south border, which currently cuts through oil-producing regions (including the crucial Abyei area), is yet to be properly demarcated. The future of the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile also needs to be addressed. Currently both are controlled by Khartoum, but their people generally support the south. An agreement also needs to be reached on the fate of the 1.5 million southerners living in the north and a decision has yet to be reached on how the waters of the Nile will be shared.

Many outside observers are worried that if these problems are not solved fast or if January’s vote does not go smoothly, a return to civil war is unavoidable. And, as if to reinforce this point, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge of violence in the south which some have claimed is being stirred up by Khartoum in an attempt to derail the peace process. Yet in January 2010, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said that if the south votes for secession then Khartoum will be the first to post an ambassador to Juba (the southern capital).

And how will all this affect travellers? For those sticking to the north, the impact will probably be fairly minimal, but for those whose interests run further south then whichever way January’s vote goes, one of Africa’s most beautiful, diverse, complex and fascinating countries is about to get a whole lot more complex.

Lonely Planet's author Stuart Butler's photos of Sudan can be seen on Flickr.