Why is Sudan so violent?
The roots of conflict run deep, nurtured by racial and religious hostility. In the early 20th century, Britain, which administered Sudan, sought to limit the influence of the Arab, Muslim north on the largely black, Christian and animist south—even restricting travel between the two regions. As Sudan prepared for its 1956 independence, a civil war broke out between north and south, in part because southerners feared domination by the north. Sudan’s civil war evolved into Africa’s longest, raging intermittently over the next half-century, at a cost of more than 2 million lives. In a separate conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, Sudanese government troops have worked with vicious Arab militias known as janjaweed to crush a rebellion by black Africans, resorting to systematic rape and genocide. Civil war is now so deeply ingrained in Sudanese culture that it’s not uncommon to see 12-year-olds toting submachine guns in the streets. Indeed, in Khartoum, the north’s capital, the standard school uniform is camouflage fatigues.

What are they fighting over now?
Oil, power, race, and religion. Traditionally, power and wealth in Sudan have rested in the hands of a small Arab elite who live along the banks of the Nile in the north. But in 1978, oil was discovered in a southern state (ironically named Unity), and 80 percent of the country’s oil still comes from the south. Sudan’s government earned about $2.8 billion in oil revenue last year, accounting for more than half its entire budget. The south’s oil has transformed Khartoum from a sleepy backwater into a modern metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls, providing the funds for new schools and roads. Over the years, however, southerners have profited far less from the oil beneath their feet; southern Sudan remains among the least developed regions in the world. Northerners say the south’s economic problems are its own fault; ever since a 2005 peace agreement between north and south, the south has claimed 50 percent of the country’s oil revenues. But southerners still complain of being bullied by the north. “We’re fourth-class citizens in our own country,” said Salva Kiir, the president of southern Sudan.

Is the south entirely powerless?
Not anymore. In a 2005 peace accord that the U.S. helped broker, the south got a share of power—and more importantly, an option to become independent six years later via a referendum. That six-year deadline is now drawing near, with a referendum scheduled for Jan. 9. All indications are that voters in the south will vote overwhelmingly to secede. Southerners deem self-rule the culmination of a long struggle. “The date of Jan. 9, 2011, is written not with words,” says John Duku, the south’s former mission chief in Kenya. “It is written with the blood of 2.5 million southern Sudanese who perished during the war.”

Will the north accept secession?
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party say they will abide by the vote, but they appear determined to undermine it at every step. They insist that a referendum cannot take place until numerous conflicts are resolved, including the contentious matter of a border between north and south; since a resolution is unlikely, a referendum may never happen. The head of the national referendum commission wasn’t appointed until July due to disputes over commission personnel. Meanwhile, logistical issues—from the means of registering voters to the designation of voting centers—remain up in the air. In the south, there is widespread concern about the lack of preparation for the vote. “People here are waiting eagerly for the chance to decide their future, and expectations are extremely high,” said Charlotte Scawen of Oxfam.

What happens if the vote is blocked?
It could get ugly. Both sides have been aggressively arming in recent years, and neither the south nor international observers have faith in Sudanese President al-Bashir. He is currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity for his government’s genocidal actions in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have been killed and an estimated 2.7 million displaced since 2004. (Separatism is a powerful current in Darfur, as well, and could receive a jolt if the south secedes.) With so many tensions simmering, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called Sudan a “ticking time bomb.”

Can war be averted?
Both the U.S. and the United Nations are seeking to avoid a conflagration, and U.N. Security Council representatives were recently in Sudan for meetings. The U.S., eager to contain al Qaida–linked militants in nearby Somalia and Yemen, desperately wants to avoid another failed state—and a potential terrorist training ground—in Sudan. But with the referendum date fast approaching, the situation is hardly encouraging. The Anglican archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng, this month asked directly for international assistance to avert catastrophe. “People may resort back to war,” he warned, “and because of that we are asking our friends to help because we don’t want people to be sorry tomorrow.”

A lost chance
In July 2005, John Garang, the leftist intellectual who led the south’s long guerrilla war against the north, arrived in Khartoum to sign a peace deal. Even in the north’s capital, people clambered up trees or onto rooftops to get a glimpse of the towering Dinka tribesman. One month after signing a peace accord, however, Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. Buried along with him, some believe, were hopes for a unified Sudan. Though the government declared three days of mourning to honor him, the period was marred by rioting and dozens of deaths, many of them resulting from attacks by southerners on northerners. The violence seemed to preview a grim turn in Sudan’s fate. “He was one of the few senior southerners who really believed in the concept of a united Sudan,” says Sudan analyst Peter Moszynski.