Reporting from Juba, Sudan — A pistol sits next to a battered radio while Peter Bashir Bandi, a rebel turned political leader, lounges in a gold brocade chair listening to reports about what may soon be the world's newest, and most precarious, nation.
He speaks eloquently of democracy and stitching together a country from deserts and jungles. But his gun is seldom far from his grasp, a sign that southern Sudan has known little peace in Bandi's lifetime, tumbling through two civil wars that spread mass graves, famine and generations of orphans across the land.
These images sustain Bandi's aspirations as he awaits Jan. 9, when his mostly Christian and animist south will vote in a referendum on whether to secede from the predominantly Muslim north. The outcome is likely to split Africa's largest nation in two, reviving prospects for bloodshed over oil, religion and the clashing ambitions of ethnic and political leaders.
About 3.2 million southern Sudanese are expected to cast ballots in villages, towns and outposts with no names. If they choose independence — and few suggest otherwise — the south would take with it about 80% of Sudan's oil output, a figure many believe makes it too costly for the northern-led government of President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir to let the territory slip away.
More than 2 million people died in the last civil war, from 1983 to 2005. The ideal of a unified country has long vanished. Sectarian animosities have hardened between the lighter-skinned Arabs in the north who want Islamic law and the darker-skinned Africans of the semiautonomous south governed by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
The possibility of renewed war would further destabilize a volatile region where the United States is trying to bolster poor nations against the Islamic extremism emanating for nearby Somalia. There is concern that radicals would exploit the chaos and tribal bloodshed in the event of a new conflict, especially along Sudan's borders with Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, where twin bombings in July by an Al Qaeda-linked group killed 76 people.
Sudan's ruling National Congress Party has tried to delay the January vote and has been accused of arming loyalist militias, much like it did in the catastrophic conflict in the western region of Darfur, and of bombing border areas patrolled by southern forces.
Washington and Europe are offering Bashir both threats and economic incentives in hope that renewed fighting and another humanitarian crisis can be avoided.
"Independence will happen," Bandi said, stroking a beard coiled with gray. "But the north is holding us hostage until it gets what it wants."
North and south are enemies, yet, like an estranged family bickering over a will, they are inextricably linked. The landlocked south may possess the bulk of the oil reserves, but it needs the northern-controlled pipelines to reach tankers on the Red Sea. The two now share oil revenue, but that could change in coming years if the south builds pipelines through other countries.
A major anxiety concerning the independence referendum revolves around the tension in a disputed oil-rich borderland. The south claims the Abyei region, but the north says it is entitled to at least part of it. A northern-backed Arab nomadic tribe, the Misseriya, which grazes its cattle there, lives in uneasy coexistence with the Ngok Dinka, a tribe of farmers connected to the south.
Abyei was supposed to hold a separate referendum on whether to join north or south. That has been shelved as leaders attempt to negotiate a compromise that might lead to partition, a deal on grazing and water rights, or economic benefits for the north in return for abandoning its designs on territory now roamed by tribesmen showing off grenade launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
"Abyei is the ticking time bomb," said Mahadi Dahab, a political analyst at International University of Africa in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. "If there is a war, the first shot will be fired there."
Despite the referendum's trapdoors, many officials in the north are resigned to the notion that an independent south is inevitable. Bashir has said publicly that he will not renege on the 2005 peace treaty that guarantees the south a vote on secession. The unfolding political drama centers on how the north can reach agreements with the south — instead of returning to war — to retain billions of dollars in oil revenue to fund major development projects around Khartoum.
"The dream scenario would be soft borders, dual citizenship for southerners living in the north and economic integration," said Albaqir Alafif Mukhtar, a human rights activist in Khartoum. "The south could become to the north what Bahrain is to Saudi Arabia, a place to go on the weekend to have a glass of wine."