Contributing to the peace and development of Africa, Sudan in particular, was a major priority for the Bush Administration and now looms as the single largest African issue on the Obama White House’s agenda. On January 9, 2011, the final and most significant step of the peace agreement will occur when an estimated 4 million southern Sudanese will vote to decide whether to remain part of a unified Sudan or establish a new, independent country.

With one of the most diverse populations on the continent, Sudan has suffered near constant conflict since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1956. Historically, much of the violence involved clashes between Sudan’s northern Muslim, Arab-speaking governance and the black African, non-Arab-speaking south. This has resulted in more than 2 million deaths and displacement of millions more and has contributed to deep-seeded religious and cultural divides.

In 2005, the Bush Administration helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), ending a horrific, decades-long civil war and creating a path to peace between northern and southern Sudan. Since then, Sudan has limped through successive CPA milestones. When President Bush assisted in developing the CPA, his goal was to partner with the Sudanese in developing a peace process that fit the needs the various Sudanese parties. As Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President Bush summarized: “We are not going to do it for them; we will do it with them. We can’t replace African leadership. We can’t replace African initiative. What we can do is empower it, facilitate it and support it.” Ultimately, the Sudanese people are responsible for establishing peace. However, the United States and international partners should also be prepared to provide long-term assistance.

Despite increased diplomatic activity in the months leading up to the referendum, however, the Obama Administration and most observers remain concerned. Unresolved issues surrounding voter registration, border demarcation, oil rights—among countless other potential stumbling blocks—have caused a fear that a “yes” vote for independence will lead either to renewed north–south war or a humanitarian disaster amid political instability.

There are also questions about Khartoum’s commitment to the referendum or to peace in Sudan. Despite the Islamist government in Khartoum grudgingly following the CPA framework, president Omar al-Bashir and his supporters have repeatedly defied the dictates of the international community with acts of genocidal brutality in the western Sudan region of Darfur.

On January 9, southern Sudan faces a crucial event. All indications are that the referendum will yield overwhelming support for independence. The U.S. and other partners—particularly those in Africa—should focus their efforts on supporting the outcome of the referendum and be prepared to ensure that peace is established and that the rights of self-determination and religious, cultural, and economic freedom of the southern Sudanese are respected.