Former World Council of Churches General Secretary, the Rev Samuel Kobia, says a planned January 2011 referendum for Southern Sudan must go ahead in order to prevent the region itself declaring independence - writes Fredrick Nzwili.
"A UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) is the last thing the churches will want to see. It must be avoided at any cost," Kobia, who now serves as the All Africa Conference of Churches special ecumenical envoy for Sudan, told journalists in Nairobi on 17 August 2010.
Kobia spoke as southern Sudanese leaders continued to warn they will declare independence unilaterally on 10 January if the referendum is not held the day before. That date - 9 January - is the one set by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in Nairobi. The accord sealed the end of a 21-year-long civil war in which more than two million people died.
The Kenyan Methodist pastor, who left his WCC post in December, warned that declaring UDI would be dangerous because it would split Africa and the global community.
"It is clear that there is no other way that will be honourable and credible for the people to exercise their right to self determination," said Kobia of the proposed referendum.
"It would be dignified if it is done within a referendum because that gives the people the freedom to use their conscience, and decide the future and destiny of Sudan," he added.
Kobia warned of deliberate attempts to frustrate the process so that it would appear, for technical reasons, that the referendum could not be held. The churches' special envoy explained it had taken three years after the signing of the peace agreement before a referendum commission was formed, and that it is not yet fully functioning.
Kobia was appointed to his current post with the AACC, which is tied closely to the WCC, in consultation with the Sudan Ecumenical Forum.
"I was asked and I accepted to serve as the special envoy to Sudan that started in March this year. The AACC, WCC, and SEF responded to a request by the SCC and Sudanese Churches to accompany them at this critical juncture of the history of Sudan," said Kobia.
He is expected to sustain diplomatic efforts to seek to save the agreement from collapsing by engaging both the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Peace Movement and the Sudan government, which both sponsored the pact, along with other stakeholders.
"It has been seen as urgent to have a special envoy for Sudan because the country is undergoing a special situation, which requires a special ecumenical attention," said AACC General Secretary the Rev Andre Karamaga, who worked with Kobia at the WCC.
Asked about his position on the referendum, Kobia said he is non-partisan. Some who support independence for Southern Sudan have criticised his appointment, and say he opposes independence.
"What I want to see is a political dispensation where the people of southern Sudan will enjoy their freedom, justice and life in dignity, and I think that is what matters the most," said Kobia.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]