Against all odds, voting on the referendum on the secession of South Sudan looks set to begin on 9 January as planned. But an even greater challenge lies ahead if the expected vote in favour of the split is to be achieved without plunging Sudan into renewed political crisis.

The most immediate hurdle lies in the results of the referendum being accepted by all parties – the commission, the international community and government representatives in both north and south.

Despite concerns that the north will seek to challenge the validity of the referendum, or to disrupt the implementation of the secession process, in recent weeks there have been encouraging signs that there is sufficient political commitment on all sides to ensure that the outcome of the vote will be respected.

But if the creation of a new nation in the south is to go ahead without throwing the country into political chaos, three further challenges must be overcome.

The first is the resolution of the oil-rich Abyei region, which lies on the border of north and south Sudan. A referendum on the future of Abyei will no longer take place alongside the referendum as planned, leaving the future of the territory in the hands of negotiators.

If negotiations fail to result in a consensus on Abyei’s future, it is likely to disrupt the process to set up a new state in the south, scheduled to take effect on 9 July 2011.

The second is an economic challenge. An estimated 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil lies in the south, but the only refining facilities are in the north, along with Sudan’s only port. For the split to have any chance of success, a deal must be reached on the management of resources.

The third challenge is to ensure political inclusivity in the south. While there is overwhelming support in the region for the secession, tribal complexities threaten to lead to further conflict if the government continues to be dominated by one party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.