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Africa's New Horror

South Sudan's declaration of independence could thrust the country back into a bloody civil war.

Think the only Sudan crisis is in Darfur, or that the horror there is winding down? You're wrong.

There's a new Sudan calamity in the making, and it may well come in 2010 with a unilateral declaration of independence by the enclave of South Sudan. If it does, the resulting conflict stands to be more painful, militarized, and devastating than Sudan has ever known. Imagine Darfur with a lot more guns, not to mention Chinese fighter jets.

The clock for this latest crisis started ticking ominously in 2005. A North-South civil war that left some 2 million dead and millions more displaced had finally ended. But that year's Comprehensive Peace Agreement pushed the touchiest issue of all -- the independence of the South, a France-sized area of just under 10 million people that won its autonomy in that 2005 deal -- six years into the future. The clock runs out in January 2011, but the crisis will likely come sooner.

Unfortunately, the "comprehensive strategy" on Sudan unveiled by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in October depends almost entirely on the deluded notion that implementation of the 2005 peace agreement will go as planned. Obama's team said it hopes South Sudan's likely secession will be an "orderly transition to two separate and viable states at peace with each other."

But this is Sudan we're talking about, not Belgium. The actual scenario -- if Sudan's recent history is any guide -- is likely to be anything but orderly. A national census slated to happen before July 2007 was repeatedly delayed until finally taking place amid violence and gaping errors. Nonetheless, Khartoum has insisted that the count's doctored results be used to draw up parliamentary districts that favor the North. Voter registration, which also depends on the flawed census data, has just barely begun. So any expectation that April's general elections, a key test ahead of the January 2011 deadline, will be legitimate is surreal at best. The vote is likely to be marred by bloodshed, as most of the contenders will either be backed or opposed -- and usually both -- by heavily armed groups.

If the elections proceed but their results lack legitimacy, South Sudan's rulers will be under tremendous public pressure to unilaterally declare independence without a referendum. After all, the outcome of such a vote is not in doubt; you would be hard-pressed to find many southerners who prefer to remain under Khartoum's thumb.

There's also a tactical reason why South Sudan might go for broke: The North is acquiring an insuperable military advantage, and Khartoum is unlikely to relinquish its hold on the oil-rich South without a fight. In fact, for the last decade, Khartoum has been busy using revenue from that same oil to modernize its armed forces in preparation for conflict. In Darfur, the northern regime has used its primitive air force to deadly effect. When the Shenyang J-8 and Chengdu F-7 supersonic fighter-bombers recently acquired from China, the largest customer for Sudanese oil, are put to use, the results will be devastating. Chinese companies have also helped establish at least three weapons factories outside the Sudanese capital, including one that manufactures ammunition, effectively immunizing the regime against the effects of any future arms embargo.

Even if the South moves to secede before Khartoum's military might grows, the ensuing conflict will be messy. Skirmishes along the North-South border left at least 2,000 people dead and more than 250,000 displaced in 2009. The South's coming declaration of independence will undoubtedly provoke not only large-scale violence in the country formerly known as Sudan, but also the destabilization of the entire region as neighboring countries find themselves drawn in. Will Obama let it happen on his watch?

STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images

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Yemen's coming explosion will make today's problems seem tame.

In 2010, Yemen will celebrate the 20th anniversary of national unification. But it won't be much of a party: This could well be the year Yemen comes apart.

Even the brutal 1994 civil war failed to threaten the structural integrity of this country chronically teetering on the verge of disintegration as much as the current crises, all of which may be coming to a head in 2010.

Yemen has so many dire problems that it's easy to be overwhelmed. Al Qaeda is growing in prominence, a Shiite rebellion is expanding in the north, and the threat of secession is renewed in the south. There's a brewing fight over what comes after President Ali Abdullah Saleh, age 67, who has ruled Yemen for 31 years; the country's elites are locked in a closed-door struggle to take power once he departs. Finally, and perhaps most intractably, Yemen is an environmental and resource catastrophe in the making. The country's water table is nearly depleted from years of agricultural malpractice, and its oil reserves are rapidly dwindling. This comes just when unemployment is soaring and an explosive birthrate promises only more young, jobless citizens in the coming years.

The overburdened and crisis-ridden government has never felt much urgency in dealing with this last category of concerns. But Yemen's first two troubles, security and governance, are a combustible mix -- and together they might explode in 2010 if al Qaeda consolidates its gains by taking advantage of a government in disarray. The organization, already the most regionally and economically representative of any group in the country, has only grown stronger over the past three years. Once disorganized and on the run, today al Qaeda members are putting down roots by marrying into local tribes and establishing a durable infrastructure that can survive the loss of key commanders. They have also launched a two-track policy of persuasion and intimidation, first by constructing a narrative of jihad that is broadly popular in Yemen, and second by assassinating or executing security officials who prove too aggressive in their pursuit of al Qaeda fighters. So, while U.S. President Barack Obama is busy trying to stamp out terrorist safe havens in Jalalabad and Waziristan, new ones are popping up in Marib, Shabwa, and al-Jawf.

For much of his career, Saleh has been a master manipulator, surviving three decades in power in a country where his two immediate predecessors were assassinated within a year of each other. He's lasted so long by relying on a coterie of relatives and trusted allies. But now, the style and structure of his rule are beginning to fracture. Yemen's economic straits mean that he has less money to maintain his patronage network or play different factions against one another. Within his own Sanhan tribe, the once-strong bonds of loyalty are starting to show signs of strain as relatives and other powerful figures scramble for position in hopes of eventually seizing the presidency themselves.

Whoever does take power in the capital of Sanaa may find there's not much of Yemen left to rule. The country continues to dissolve into semiautonomous regions amid various rebellions, all of which feed off one another. The military's inability to put down the insurrection in the north is emboldening calls for independence in the south, while other groups, who sense Saleh's growing weakness, are beginning to press their own demands.

The United States has not helped matters. Washington's continued insistence on seeing the country only through the prism of counterterrorism has induced exactly the results it is hoping to avoid. By focusing on al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other threat and by linking most of its aid to this single issue, the United States has only ensured that al Qaeda will always exist.

Instead of imploding, Yemen is going to explode. And when it does, Yemen's problems of today are going to become Saudi Arabia's problems of tomorrow. This is already foreshadowed by Saudi involvement in the northern conflict and al Qaeda strikes from Yemen into the kingdom. By the time Obama and his team cobble together a smarter response, the time for prevention will have passed and their only option will be mopping up the mess.

-/AFP/Getty Images