Rarely is it possible to predict a day when history will be made. In Africa, January 9 is such a date.

A referendum will be held in southern Sudan, which will almost certainly result in the creation of new nation state — the first such event since the creation of East Timor in 1997. But in a region with a history as rich in conflict as its ground is rich with oil, the spectre of election violence casts a dangerous shadow.

So the question is — beyond the rosy notion of a new nation in the Olympics parade — why is this important to Australia? The prospect of major humanitarian disaster in the region has done little to provoke global interest in the past, so why should we be interested now? Why, as Africa’s largest state is preparing to split in two, is the world starting to pay attention to Sudan?

The simplest explanation is oil. Sudan has the third largest reserves of oil in Africa, behind only those other beacons of democracy and peace, Libya and Nigeria. The south — so long the poor brother of Sudan’s civil conflict — holds 80% of this vast resource.

The biggest foreign investor in southern Sudan is China. Sudan is a crucial supplier of China’s oil needs. And while the south has the great majority of Sudan’s crude, the north is home to almost all crucial infrastructure, pipelines and refineries. In the whole of Southern Sudan — roughly the size of Spain and Portugal — there are only 60 kilometres of paved roads.

If the referendum passes next month there is no certainty supply will be guaranteed by the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum. If the result is disputed and violent — as many expect — oil production may be seriously affected. China is currently investigating laying a multibillion dollar pipeline from southern Sudan direct to Mombasa on the coast of Kenya.

The US has also made Sudan a diplomatic priority in recent months. Deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough has led a co-ordinated program by the Obama Administration to ensure a positive response in the January referendum. Senator John Kerry has been delivering messages and applying pressure in Khartoum and the southern capitol Juba. While the US is motivated by Sudan’s resources, they also have wider strategic interests in regional security. With its instability and northern dominated Islamic government, Sudan has become a key front in the never ending War on Terror.

For our part, Australia has committed $9 million to the help with the referendum, which adds to the $113 million we have donated to the region since the 2004. Part of this new allocation of funds will be spent on registration and polling of the large southern Sudanese population living in Australia. In addition, 27 defence force personal and Australian Federal Police have so far been deployed with the UN peace-keeping mission.

The division of Sudan into two separate nations is seen as the best possibility for ending a civil war that has been running on and off for almost 60 years since independence. But while the referendum offers a historic chance for peace it also brings the likelihood of a catastrophic return to conflict.

In the event of a “no” vote there will be enormous anger in large sections of the southern population. In the more likely case that the south votes to separate, factions in the north are likely to refuse to accept partition. Both sides are quietly making preparations.

A recent WikiLeaks cable has confirmed that a shipment of tanks stolen by Somali pirates two years ago had been destined for southern Sudan. The north is not going to lightly let go of the oil prize. Whatever the outcome on January 9, Sudan now stands on the brink of history.

Peter Fray

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