"The South Sudanese vote this week in a referendum that could potentially give birth to Africa's newest state. As they do so, euphoria over the poll's unexpected success must not distract from a necessary reassessment of post-referendum challenges.
Serious concerns over its ultimate viability are not unfounded: to avoid counter-productive outcomes, external backers of Sudan's peace process – the EU especially – must redouble efforts to stop grim forecasts turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.
As if we needed reminding, it was that most unlikely of sympathisers, Sudan's President Albashir – indicted for war crimes which scarred another of the country's restive peripheries – who was this week confidently warning about the 'buyer's remorse' that lies in wait for the South Sudanese post-referendum.
With a geographic area bigger than Spain and Portugal combined, and only less than 100 kilometres of tarred road, it is clear South Sudan's hard-fought inheritance will confront serious existential challenges.
First, contrary to its tawdry description in Western media as a 'Christian and animist' monolith, South Sudan is wracked by internal ethnic competition and strife. Its lack of basic capacity or infrastructure, combined with creeping corruption within ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) ranks, presents Herculean hurdles for reformers and outsiders striving to make a success of Southern independence.
It would be a cruel irony if concerted help to transform the young state into a positive African model of nation-building and social progress were throttled by that well-known curse of nepotism, corruption and incompetence. Current trajectories point disturbingly at the still embryonic administrative structures evolving into the illiberal, unresponsive state form found across Africa and only astute, practical re-engagement will alter this.
Second, managing new border politics will prove testy, with the former internal frontier potentially turning into an unstable zone of North-South confrontation. One of the legacies of the haphazard implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is its fostering of new divisions and hardening of attitudes in the border areas - precisely the opposite of its original vision.
Since voting for the referendum started on 9 January, tension has risen in disputed border territories like Abyei, where Southern-linked Dinka Ngok groups are now fighting Misseriya Arab pastoralists. The latest fatality count stood at 60 and counting. This is hardly an auspicious start, but one which many are quietly hoping will not set the tone for coming months.
Oil revenues, the principal source of income for both sides, remain contentious, as does responsibility for Sudan's 35.7 billion dollars external debt.
On these issues, no clear-cut agreement is yet in sight. The temptation for some creditors is to saddle the North alone with this responsibility in order to press concessions in exchange for debt forgiveness. Such a move will be mistaken; direct meddling of this sort or perceived lack of even-handed treatment will provide the north justifications for playing hard ball in the face of alleged hostility and bad faith of external powers and donors.
Although relations grew more acrimonious through the transition, working to apply more transparently the principle of equal oil revenue-sharing offers one potentially viable option going forward. Given the obvious mutual dependence, economically at least, the EU should lean on both parties and help them work towards mutually acceptable joint ownership, management, and resource-sharing agreements.
Landlocked, the South's options appear limited. Oil pipelines traverse northern territory on their way to Red Sea coastal ports. This suggests Juba's dependence (at least in the medium term) on Khartoum's goodwill for much of crude reserves in disputed border areas to be exported for cash needed by both sides. Unless this succeeds, external backers will soon find themselves catering to an insolvent South, beset by internal, cross-frontier and regional instabilities.
Regionally, South Sudan will need good relations with its five neighbours apart from North Sudan, of which Kenya's role as its immediate coastal outlet will be most crucial. The disputed Ilemi triangle along the Kenya-South Sudan border represents a weak link in their relations. Similarly, the menace of Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) terrorists will need to be tackled, as this Ugandan rebel group could once again serve Khartoum in a prospective proxy war against Juba.
Away from the elitist accommodation at the centre fostered by Western powers in the 2005-2011 transition, this wider regional ramifications together with accommodating grassroots and borderland communities must now become priority areas for external development interventions.
The EU resumed long-term assistance to Sudan in 2005 after the CPA, but inherent bias towards Southern issues and Khartoum's non-ratification of the Cotonou Agreement have kept its funding levels modest.
And yet North Sudan also confronts profound post-referendum challenges. The growing tendency in international action to concentrate assistance in the South to the detriment of an increasingly resentful Northern government may itself pose a danger.
The Darfur rebellion remains a determinant factor for post-referendum stability in North Sudan. Clamour for further secessions, led by Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), remains strong - though it's a less meritorious bid than the South's, given Darfur's closer religious affinity to Sudan's Arab heartland.
President Albashir also seems determined to use the South's separation to consolidate his stranglehold on the North, hinting that a tightened Sharia regime could be applied more extensively, further jeopardising the precarious standing of Southern Christians resident in the North.
Europe's already limited leverage on North Sudan will plummet as Southern independence become reality. Still, conditioning future EU assistance on Juba's own internal governance record and good neighbourly conduct could over time win back Khartoum's cooperation.
Whether the SPLM leaders of an independent South Sudan will see reason to put clear daylight between themselves and JEM's rebellion is another unknown, but their actions will be consequential for Southern stability.
President Albashir is now often heard advocating an EU-style union between North and South Sudan. It sounds almost absurd coming from the same helmsman who prevaricated and destroyed until Southern secessionist fervour gathered steam. We may never know the exact outlines of his 'EU-style' functional integrationist vision, much less support its implementation. What seems paramount, though, is to breathe life into its collaborative logic, which will be key to addressing immediate post-referendum and longer-term challenges.
The Sudanese leader's earlier platitude about the sanctity of inherited colonial borders divided his African peers. His latest call is more likely to command their overwhelming support. With a judicious admixture of stick and carrots, the EU must stand ready to hold him to his words, demanding a post-referendum dispensation that meets all Sudanese aspirations and those of the continent.
Shepherding concerned parties towards this sensible endgame will not be easy. More than symbolically recreating borders, Africans should re-imagine frontiers so they are no longer encumbrances but enablers of the continent's vast potentials."