Dispatch

The Referendum Hangover

January 9 may well have been the happiest and most hopeful day Southern Sudan has seen in half a century. But there is a danger in celebrating too soon.

JUBA, Sudan — Euphoria permeated the atmosphere in the Southern Sudanese capital on Sunday, and for good reason. For a people who have fought and endured decades of conflict, all for the remote prospect of finding independence at the end, this week is for celebrating. A new state in the south seemed finally within reach when voting began in a weeklong referendum on whether to secede from greater Sudan. Nearly 4 million Southern Sudanese are expected to cast ballots in what the region's leaders are dubbing their "Final Walk to Freedom." Popular sentiment almost unanimously favors secession, and it was impossible not to notice the unbridled joy of many of the voters at a number of polling stations I visited in Juba on Sunday. At one station under a mango tree in a dusty open field, a middle-aged woman dropped her ballot in the plastic box, dipped her finger in blue ink, and proceeded to literally skip out of the station, ululating as she went.

That the voting is happening at all is incredible. Despite tough odds and scores of doomsday analyses that warned it could be delayed, marred by violence, or stopped altogether (mea culpa: I am among those who had such fears), polls opened on time in 10 southern states, in northern Sudan where many southerners have resided since the war, and in eight countries worldwide that host a Sudanese diaspora.

Still, there is a danger in celebrating too early. Voters may call for an independent Southern Sudan as they cast their ballots this week, but the means by which the new country would split off is still subject to difficult negotiations and thorny details. There is no agreement over a border, citizenship, the sharing of natural resources, and one contentious border region called Abyei. So while its people are celebrating, Southern Sudan's leaders are eager to get back to the negotiating table with Khartoum, where a long agenda awaits after the voting finishes. If international attention wanes after the votes are cast, those negotiations could easily take a turn for the worse.

It would be impossible for there not be a "hangover" following the announcement of the results of the ballot, which will not be certified and officially announced until Feb. 6 at the earliest, according to the referendum commission. The voting here in Juba has captured international attention. News crews from around the world have flooded the city, usually a relatively quiet capital with an expatriate community made up mostly of aid workers and frontier businessmen.

There was also a huge diplomatic push to get to this moment. Last fall, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration ramped up its efforts to ensure that the voting was carried off on time. The White House sent its special envoy, Scott Gration, as well as a seasoned Africa hand from the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton Lyman, to do the diplomatic legwork on the ground. A high-level meeting in New York during the U.N. General Assembly in late September ensured that the international community was acting in lockstep -- and around the clock -- to help Sudan hold the referendum on time and in peace.

But the spotlight may well lift after the last voters go to polls later this week -- at exactly the moment when the politics of secession will become even more fraught. From the moment the results are known, the clock starts ticking on independence talks: The African Union-brokered negotiations between the ruling party in Khartoum and the governing party in the south -- now on hold while the voting takes place -- have to be completed by the summer. The 2005 north-south peace agreement governing the referendum calls for an "interim period" between the voting and secession, to expire on July 9, 2011. This is also the date the south will declare independence if the referendum passes.

That leaves just a few months for some of the most contentious issues in Sudan's recent history to be resolved. The parties will have to decide who becomes a citizen, a tricky question since tens of thousands of southerners now live in the north. A security arrangement along the border will have to be worked out -- as will the actual border demarcation itself. It's also not clear yet how north and south Sudan will share oil wealth, much of which will be concentrated in the new independent state. But perhaps most controversial of all is the status of Abyei, which lies along the disputed border. Oil rich, ethnically diverse, and politically explosive, Abyei was supposed to hold its own referendum this week over whether to be in Sudan or the new Southern Sudanese state. Disputes over who would be able to vote, however, have delayed the polls. Clashes have broken out there in recent days between settler and nomad populations, the former preferring to go with the south and the latter favoring the north. The situation on the ground on Monday was reportedly calm, but any further flaring of violence in the area is likely to raise tensions between Khartoum and Juba over an issue on which neither side wants to cede ground.

In the run-up to the referendum and on the first day of polling, a flurry of VIPs who had descended on Southern Sudan underlined their collective concerns about Abyei. U.S. Senator John Kerry was among them, promising that Abyei was "not forgotten." Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and actor George Clooney have also added their voices. Without Abyei settled, Clooney told Time, "then this whole thing falls apart."

There is a good chance that the negotiations will move too slowly to meet the July deadline. Insider accounts of the AU-brokered talks suggest that Khartoum is intentionally stalling. Moderator and former South African President Thabo Mbeki has reportedly chided Khartoum on at least one occasion for what appears to be a lack of seriousness in the negotiations. A popular theory here in Juba is that Khartoum will move as slowly as possible so as to extract the maximum concessions from the south last minute, when the south will be desperate to wrap things up.

And what happens if the deadline isn't met at all? No matter where the talks stand in July, Southern Sudan is likely to move forward with its claim for independence. And that, many fear, could escalate in the worst-case scenario into a new north-south war. "If we don't take these issues like Abyei and the wealth- sharing and other post-referendum and Comprehensive Peace Agreement issues seriously and leave them on the back burner and declare success with the southern referendum and walk away, I'm pretty sure that war will resume in Sudan," warns John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, referring to the 2005 agreement that ended the civil war. A renewed conflict isn't all that far-fetched: Both north and south Sudan have bulked up their arms and soldiers in contentious zones such as Abyei -- something that becomes alarmingly apparent whenever a small skirmish turns into a deadly fight with heavy arms.

Yet war is far from assured. There are many reasons for Khartoum and Juba not to take up arms. For one, there's the price tag. A recent report estimated that another bloody conflict between the two former foes would cost $100 billion. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir also sounded a conciliatory note last week when he visited Juba, pledging to the south that he'd give "anything you need" and suggesting that he sees a benefit in both sides moving forward peacefully, even if Sudan does become two states. (He may also realize that the world is watching how the referendum unfolds, and is merely biding his time.)

When the last polls close at 5 p.m. on Jan. 15, the true test of international attention span begins. The Obama administration deserves credit for putting Sudan near the top of its foreign-policy agenda. But if the White House's focus on Sudan wanes after the referendum, then all its extra efforts will have been for naught. Obama's team will have to keep in close contact with Mbeki's team in order to present a united front to the Sudanese parties. If this cooperation breaks down, Khartoum will exploit confusion and gaps among the diplomats.

The vote is off to a good start. But July is a long way off. The international community cannot afford to rest until north and south have signed the papers to make the divorce official and equitable.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

How Cricket Explains Pakistan

Forget England and its bold Test series victory over Australia. If you cared about cricket this year, you were watching Pakistan's slow implosion, played out on pitches from Islamabad to Dubai.

In some countries, like England and Australia, cricket is played as recreation; in others, like India, as meditation. Watching Pakistani cricketers, however, one senses the sport is their purest physical expression. They are like Argentine footballers: unpredictable, a little shady, a bit dangerous, full of eccentrics and cranks, often inefficient and blundering, but possessed of a mercurial passion and an utter magic. When the legendary cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan led Pakistan to an improbable World Cup win in 1992, it wasn't just a triumph of skill, it was a celebration of cricket itself -- a game, its followers like to say, of "glorious uncertainties." Then, as now, in the lanes of Karachi and Lahore, in track pants and tees with duct tape wrapped around a tennis ball, or on parched Punjab dustlands, barefoot in salwar kameezes with homemade bats and bricks for stumps, youngsters are to be found tearing in to bowl, in a performance always.

So when the brilliant light of Pakistan cricket dims, the rest of the cricket world takes notice. And these days, Pakistan is confronting some of its dimmest times, in cricket as in everything else.

In November 2008, following the Mumbai attack launched by Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, India broke cricket ties with Pakistan, causing the game there a significant financial blow. A few months later, in March 2009, a terrorist group attacked a visiting Sri Lankan team. This attack, undertaken in clear morning light, as the team bus drove to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, injured several of the players and killed six security men and the bus driver. Pakistan has not been able to host international cricket on home soil ever since. Then, in 2010, the national team was rocked by a match-fixing scandal: Three leading players, including the captain, were suspended as a result of a sting operation conducted by the British tabloid News of the World (the players are currently in Doha at a special cricket corruption court for hearings that are expected to conclude on Jan. 11), and a widening investigation has placed several other players under suspicion. Three years, three body blows to Pakistani cricket. It now stands on the brink of collapse.

Each of these events has deep roots. The modern concept of sport as big business came late to cricket. Not until India's economy was opened up in the mid-1990s, attracting multinational companies trying to reach a mammoth audience through advertising spots, could international cricket dream of signing television or player contracts worth even a fraction of those in, say, soccer or baseball. The coming of big money led to the thoughtless overscheduling of tournaments and, in an underregulated atmosphere, an explosion of interest from underworld betting cartels.

These factors combusted into cricket's first match-fixing crisis in 2000, tarring big names across the world but especially in India, Pakistan, and South Africa. One may argue that India is scarcely a less corrupt nation than its neighbor -- the founder-commissioner of the big-bucks Indian Premier League, in fact, is under investigation on a wide range of corruption charges -- but at least it has been able to reward its elite cricketers spectacularly.

At 170 million, Pakistan's population is the second-largest among cricketing nations, but its middle class is too minute to draw corporate money. Its cricket administration, structured to serve under a crony chairman appointed by the nation's president and invested with virtually unlimited power, is utterly dysfunctional. Pakistan's cricketers, with increasingly little opportunity to play and governed by this fickle administration, are by international cricket standards glaringly underpaid.

A friend in Pakistan speaks of teenagers on the streets placing bets on outcomes of every delivery -- the pitch, in baseball terms -- of local cricket games. The phenomenon, when rigged, is known as "spot fixing." For a hustling youngster like Mohammad Amir, the stunningly gifted 18-year-old at the center of Pakistani cricket's current fixing scandal, for whom gambling is the daily stuff of the street (in a land where the president is nicknamed "Mr. Ten Percent") temptation is an easy trap. All he would have to do to improve his income is perform the seemingly innocuous act of overstepping the bowling crease -- a "no-ball," cricket's equivalent of a foot fault -- at a pre-decided moment.

As the scandal unfolds, it appears that Amir is only a pawn in the game. He was allegedly roped into the scam by his captain, Salman Butt; and Salman Butt through his agent, a British businessman by the name of Mazhar Majeed. Majeed, in turn, colluded with gambling cartels, and everyone, if reports are right, raked in the money.

In early November, two months after News of the World broke the story, the case took a sinister turn. Another young cricketer, Zulqarnain Haider, disappeared from Dubai, where Pakistan was in the middle of a series against South Africa, and surfaced at London's Heathrow Airport, seeking asylum. He'd received death threats, he claimed, for refusing to throw a match. He had ignored the threats, helped win the match for Pakistan, and then, fearing for his family's life and his own, fled. Details haven't been forthcoming: who exactly issued the threat, why Haider flew to England rather than to his family in Pakistan, why he did not report the threat to the administrators in the first place. What is clear is the kind of control gambling cartels can take of a sport once they have access.

This moment is, one hopes, the nadir of a wretched few years that have included doping revelations, ball-tampering controversies, mass sackings and recalls, captaincy musical chairs, the in-tournament death of a coach, and the shenanigans of the cricket chief, Ijaz Butt. Butt's response to the security complaints of an English official who was caught up in the 2009 attack on Sri Lankan cricketers was to call the comments "obnoxious"; his response to the News of the World exposé was to turn around and accuse the English cricketers of corruption, without basis. The International Cricket Council has tried to intervene with a "task team" to enforce basic anti-corruption procedures, but the problem is really much more endemic than that.

Pakistani cricket has become intimately bound up with the country's broader implosion. No international team, naturally, has toured Pakistan since the attack on its soil in 2009. Next year, it will be the only one of four subcontinental cricket nations not hosting any part of the big World Cup gala. Its "home" games, few and far between, are staged in the United Arab Emirates or England. The distance places a further strain on the resources of a maladministered cricket board, which, at a conservative estimate, has incurred losses of $250 million over the past three years from tour cancellations. Meanwhile, the militancy in the heartland of Pakistan is growing gradually worse, with more frequent terrorist attacks and an inept governmental response. What price a couple of manipulated no-balls in this environment?

The continuing decay of Pakistan is terribly unfortunate for cricket at large. The game is played seriously in two handfuls of Britain's former colonies, among them devastated Zimbabwe, impoverished Bangladesh, tiny New Zealand, post-civil-war Sri Lanka, and the West Indies -- which doesn't even exist except for the purpose of cricket (and a common university). Pakistan's collapse will make it a smaller and grimmer world, depriving it of flair, variety, beauty.

Its subcontinental rival would be hard-put to disagree. From India, the view of Pakistan is never clear; it is hard with all the barbed wire. We see the terrible poignancy of separation at birth, guns and missiles trained on one another, territorial wars that are also in some ways wars of faith. But through the clouds and fences -- now you see it, now you don't -- there is cricket. For about half their history, India and Pakistan have kept their cricket teams from touring in each other's countries. Yet, even those Indians who view a cricket loss to Pakistan as the grossest national humiliation cannot help a grudging fascination with them.

In better times the two countries congregate around cricket. When in 2004 the Indian team did a full tour of Pakistan after a long freeze, it occasioned the largest people-to-people exchange since Partition. With visa rules relaxed, thousands of Indians and Pakistanis met somebody from across the border for the first time in their lives. There always was sound economic sense to cricket diplomacy. Through the years of governmental restrictions, the cricket boards found ways to make money from TV revenues while staging matches in neutral venues such as Sharjah and Toronto. But this spirit of cooperation between the boards has now dwindled, and international cricket's most marketable product -- the Indian Premier League -- has not featured Pakistani players in any edition since early 2008.

The cricket world's loss is nothing compared with the tragedy for Pakistan's own citizens. Cricket has thrilled them through dark days, provided them the hope on a mass level that only sport can. In the past three years they've lived through an emergency rule imposed by a military dictator, the assassination of their favorite daughter Benazir Bhutto, and the efforts of a compromised and fragile civilian government to keep their country from rising above No. 10 in Foreign Policy's Failed States Index -- the only non-African nation, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, in that top bracket. And then -- just as a young cricket team led by a seemingly idealistic captain and energized by the teenaged, dimpled Amir held the promise of glory -- came the floods of August.

When sportsmen, heroes for a people, become afflicted with a self-seeking cynicism, it is a sad day. In this case, the old Victorian disapproving tut, "It's not cricket," is both metaphorically and literally true. No, it's not cricket. Nor is it just cricket: The crisis here is much bigger than a game.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images