KHARTOUM (Reuters) - After south Sudan votes as expected to secede from the north on January 9, leaders of both countries must still resolve a daunting range of practical issues if they are to prevent a return to violence.
The referendum, guaranteed by a 2005 peace deal between north and south which ended Africa's longest civil war, is forecast to result in secession, but exactly how the two
countries will begin to disentangle their economies, resources and people is far from clear.
Even the name of south Sudan has not been decided. Suggestions include New Sudan, Equatoria, Juwama or the Nile Republic.
"The absence of an agreement so far on post-referendum arrangements increases the possibility that the result will be challenged, generating renewed conflict between the parties," said election expert Aly Verjee in a report on the referendum for regional think tank the Rift Valley Institute.
While brinkmanship and quick fixes have characterised the north-south partnership since the peace accord, the creation of two new states raises problems that are far too sensitive to be leveraged off against each other with last-minute wrangling.
"At this final stage, brinkmanship, delay and broken agreements -- old traditions of Sudanese politics -- threaten to turn the political and technical challenges of the (referendum) into a national disaster," Verjee said.
Citizenship rights, agreeing a border and how to patrol it, sharing assets and liabilities, dividing oil and Nile water resources, agreeing the status of the disputed Abyei region and coordinating economic policies are all potential flashpoints which have yet to be agreed just days ahead of voting.
This means southerners, especially those living in the north, will have to make a decision at the ballot box without knowing what the consequences of that decision might be.
Neither the north or south can afford a return to war and most expect they will continue some form of oil revenue-sharing after secession in order to offset a major economic shock to either economy.
But investors are still wary given the major unknowns that surround the mechanics of separation and the fact that on the eve of voting, little of substance has been agreed between the two sides.
Delaying tactics from the north, reluctant to let go of the oil-producing south, failed to bear fruit. The commission in charge of the vote -- with international help -- has performed a miracle by preparing it in less than six months instead of the more than three years they should have had.
Many still expect the north to withhold its recognition of the referendum result -- due before February 15 -- for weeks given the accusations of fraud it made during voter registration and the various cases brought before the Constitutional Court hoping to stall the process.
The north will want to maximise leverage ahead of post-secession talks, but this manoeuvre could backfire and lose it international good will if it holds out too long.
The south feels it will be in a stronger negotiating position once a secession result has been announced, so it too has been in no hurry to agree on post-referendum arrangements.
Both sides have received technical advice from donor nations on how a separation could take place, but aggressive public rhetoric has halted talks in the past and time is running short, with secession likely to take effect on July 9.
Once the independence celebrations have died down, leaders of the two new states must sit together and make informed decisions beneficial to both peoples if they are to avoid unrest and economic setbacks.
The international role is key. While most donors will focus aid and attention to ensure the poverty-stricken south does not become a failed state, the international community must also prevent the north from sliding back into Islamic extremism and becoming a spoiler in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
"We are offering economic incentives to encourage the north to adopt a more pluralistic, open government post secession," said one senior Western diplomat.
But many fear those incentives do not go far enough to entice the north onto a more open path, given the outstanding warrant for arrest for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide in Darfur.
That warrant and the ongoing insurgency in Darfur will likely delay an end to U.S. trade sanctions or forgiveness of Sudan's external debt -- the kind of powerful incentives which could persuade the north to open up.
So while the result of the referendum will surprise few, Sudan's problems are far from over.