The referendum, scheduled for January next year, was part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Kenya in 2005 by the Khartoum-based government of President Omar al-Bashir and the SPLA/M to end a protracted and costly conflict spanning 21 years.
The conflict cost an estimated 1.5 million lives and drove millions of the largely Christian southern Sudanese into refugee camps in Kenya and other neighbours.
But to date, no voter registration has been done and the identities of those eligible to participate in the vote remain unknown. The delay has been caused by haggling between the two rivals over how to conduct the referendum.
Two weeks ago, however, the two seemed to agree on the person to head the body that will be in charge of the referendum. At stake are the oilfields in the South.
The oil wealth is currently being shared between the south and the north and the latter is not prepared to lose its share.
The National Congress Party of President al-Bashir seems to hold onto a belief that southerners will not necessarily approve secession.
The belief is informed by the fact that having shared borders for more than two decades before war broke out in the early 1980s, the south would find it difficult to sever the links altogether.
For the south, however, a separate existence is a foregone conclusion. This view is also shared by many in the international community. The question today is not what the result of the referendum will be, but what happens after the referendum. Sudan’s neighbours are apprehensive.
The oil wealth from the south is, under the CPA, supposed to be shared equally with the north. Since 2005, the Juba-based autonomous government has received $7 billion in oil revenues.
The prospect of losing its share of the oil revenues is a reality the north cannot countenance.
The centre-piece of any future peace must lie, therefore, on both sides, but more so the south, making concessions that leave both sides with something to write home about.
The declaration of victory by the north following the redrawing of boundaries of the Abyei region by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, rather than a measured diplomatic reaction, should have sent a strong message throughout the south of the need for a reality check.
The judges carved a key oil-field out of Abyei, effectively putting it under the control of the north.
But even before the referendum is held, Sudan already has an ill cloud hanging over its skies.
President al-Bashir has two international arrest warrants against him issued by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war-crimes and crimes against humanity over the Darfur conflict, the first for a sitting head of state.
His recent trip to Nairobi to attend the promulgation of the new Constitution led to an international outcry with both the US and the EU accusing Kenya of shirking its responsibility as a signatory to the Rome Statute by failing to arrest Al-Bashir.
The ICC arrest warrant aside, more than two decades of conflict and neglect have resulted in massive underdevelopment of the south. Poverty and hunger among ordinary people remain rampant.
The $7 billion earned from its share of oil revenues over the last five years seems to have had little impact.
The SPLA-run government is also accused of corruption. Its officials live in luxury while the majority wallows in poverty.Although the government has built roads connecting the main towns and also connecting the south with Kenya and Uganda, much of the expansive region remains remote, making it difficult for services to reach needy villagers.
Despite all this, the south remains hopeful that independence and oil-wealth will bring them some dignity. Sudan remains a crucible for the international community. The south’s desire for self-determination must be balanced by political and economic realities.
Ultimately, the dividends of peace will be far greater than going through another prolonged needless conflict.