With the fifth anniversary of the signing of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement now having passed, only 12 months remain for Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan to work out their differences or face the prospect of a return to war.
And according to ten of the world's most prominent aid agencies, major conflict could return to southern Sudan unless there is urgent international action to save the peace agreement that ended one of Africa's longest and deadliest wars.
"It is not yet too late to avert disaster, but the next 12 months are a crossroads for Africa's largest country," commented Maya Mailer, Policy Advisor for Oxfam – one of ten aid agencies that issued a warning to the international community ahead of Saturday's anniversary.
In a new report released Thursday, the agencies – which include Christian Aid, Caritas France, Tearfund and World Vision – said a lethal cocktail of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions has left the historic 2005 peace deal on the brink of collapse.
In 2009, some 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 fled their homes – a human toll greater than occurred the year before in Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur region.
"Last year saw a surge in violence in southern Sudan," commented Mailer, who co-authored the "Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan" report.
"This could escalate even further and become one of the biggest emergencies in Africa in 2010," she added.
The agencies claim that a number of potential flashpoints over the next 12 months could inflame violence if not properly prepared for. These include Sudan's first multi-party elections in 24 years and a referendum in which southerners will vote on whether to remain united with the north or to secede and become independent.
Under the terms of the 2005 agreement, a government of national unity was to be formed for a transitional period of six years. During this time, the South would be autonomous, and at the end of the six-year period a referendum would be held on the issue of a unified Sudan or secession of the South.
Though the agreement brought an end to more than 21 years of civil war, which was sparked by a government effort to impose Islamic law on the mostly Christian south in 1983, both the government and the rebels of the South were allowed to maintain their armies, keeping open the option to return to war.
Such a return, the aid agencies noted in their report, would have devastating consequences that extend far beyond southern Sudan.
"The civil war was responsible for the deaths of 2 million people and forced around 4 million people to flee their homes, many into neighboring countries," the groups reported. "The war destabilized the entire region, fuelling conflicts and suffering across central and eastern Africa.
"The crisis in southern Sudan is escalating at a time when the situation in Darfur, in western Sudan, remains one of the world's biggest humanitarian emergencies," they added.
The agencies warned that there cannot be sustainable peace in Darfur if the peace between north and south is allowed to fail.
"Sustained diplomatic engagement from the international community, including Sudan's neighbors, is what is needed," commented Paul Valentin, International Director of Christian Aid. "This helped achieve what many thought was impossible and secure the peace agreement in the first place. Now engagement is needed again to ensure all that effort does not go to waste. A return to war is by no means inevitable, but it depends whether the world heeds the warning signs of the past year and has the political will to save the peace."
To safeguard civilians at this fragile juncture, the agencies have urged the UN Security Council to ensure that protecting civilians becomes a core priority for the UN peacekeeping force, UNMIS, as women and children have increasingly been targeted in attacks on villages and the Government of Southern Sudan and international peacekeepers have not been able to protect them.
The agencies also called on the international community to help mediate between the northern and southern parties before the elections and referendum, to reduce the likelihood of conflict, and to support the government in the south to provide security.
Some, including Save the Children in South Sudan, are also calling upon the people of the world to support relief and development efforts in southern Sudan, which remains one of the poorest regions on earth despite its rich oil reserves.
The agencies had warned that growing frustration over the lack of development in southern Sudan is harming the chances of peace. Less than half the population has access to clean water and maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the world. Some 80 percent of adults, meanwhile, cannot read or write and one in seven children die before their fifth birthday.
"People hoped the peace would bring economic benefits and development, but this has happened far too slowly and in some areas not at all," said Francisco Roque, Country Director of Save the Children in South Sudan. "We are very worried about children who seem to be increasingly targeted in attacks on villages. International donors and the government must urgently improve aid to these areas."
This coming April, Sudan will hold national and presidential elections that are required under the 2005 peace deal between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan. In January 2011, Sudan is expected to hold the referendum on whether South Sudan should become independent.
A number of observers say the more recent escalation of non-traditional de-stabilizing violence – specifically targeting civilians and the government – is intended to negatively affect the elections and referendum.