The future of Sudan hangs in the balance. National elections are due in April. A referendum on the future status of the south of the country is supposed to follow in 2011. Both were key ingredients of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended 20 years of civil war between north and south.
Both polls hold real promise. But they also are in real doubt. Sudan's political leaders are backtracking on the commitments under the peace agreement. Cooperation and consensus are hard to find. The terrible tragedy of the country's western Darfur region continues unabated.
It was the support of the international community that helped bring Sudanese parties together in 2005. Many key countries in Africa and the West guaranteed the agreement. Sudan urgently needs the same efforts now.
With the right international support, Sudan could move decisively towards peace and democracy in the coming months. If the international community fails the challenge, conflicts and tensions that have already cost hundreds of thousands of lives will continue and worsen. We dare not let this happen.
Ever since Nelson Mandela brought together a group of former global leaders to form The Elders, we, its members, have focused on Sudan's plight. We chose the country for our first visit as a group, and over the past two years have closely monitored the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur and other parts of the country.
During our 2007 visit, we met political and civil-society leaders from across the country, as well as representatives from United Nations agencies, the African Union, and diplomats. But it was our meetings with the ordinary people of Sudan that left the deepest impression.
We heard personal stories of unimaginable heartbreak, pain, and despair. Violence, displacement, human-rights abuses, and poverty had clearly taken a huge toll. Sudan has been ravaged for decades by bitter conflicts rooted in abject poverty, struggles over resources, and ethnic and religious tensions.
But, despite widespread depravity and injustice, we also found a remarkable resilience and optimism. Just like people all around the world, the Sudanese are determined to build a better life for their children and grandchildren. They long for peace, stability, and a say in shaping their country's future. They want educational and economic opportunities to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
So far, these hopes have been dashed. This is not just a tragedy for Sudan's long-suffering people, but is also having a damaging impact across the region and the wider world. After all, Sudan is not a small, insignificant country; it is the tenth largest - the biggest in Africa and in the Arab world. It occupies a pivotal position on our continent, bordering Egypt to the north and Kenya to the south, as well as seven other countries.
Fighting has displaced two million of Sudan's 40 million people since 2003, with large numbers forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries. And refugee flows are only way Sudan's instability has spilled across borders. We should need no reminders of the threat that failed states pose to international security.
While Sudan's people may be among the poorest in the world, their country is rich in natural wealth, including oil and precious metals. Properly developed in a stable and secure country with accountable leadership and good governance, these resources could be used to improve standards of living and tackle Sudan's many challenges.
But there is little hope of this unless the people and leaders of Northern and Southern Sudan come together and fully implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Indeed, unless the proper groundwork is laid for the upcoming elections and the referendum, Sudan faces even greater peril.
As a first step, it is crucial to ensure that the elections are free, open, and inclusive. All people and regions of the country must participate, including the internally displaced and citizens in Darfur's rebel-controlled areas.
Moreover, full and unfettered access by international election observers to monitor next year's elections and the referendum in 2011 is essential. Only then will the Sudanese population have confidence in the results, thereby providing a foundation on which to build genuine democracy and reform. Otherwise, there is a real danger that the elections will heighten, not reduce, tensions and violence.
These polls, though vitally important, are not the only challenges that Sudan and its people face. The country's complex and inter-linked problems cannot be tackled in a piecemeal fashion. Nor can individual countries and regional organizations, pursuing different agendas, help Sudan overcome its problems. Their efforts may be well intentioned, but, without better coordination, they will remain ineffective.
We urgently need the international community to put in place a clear, coherent, and comprehensive strategy aimed at the elections, the referendum, and beyond. In particular, there must be far greater regional and international support for efforts to prepare the ground for a mediated agreement in Darfur and to resolve outstanding disputes between the leaders of north and south on preparations for the elections, referendum, and other key aspects of the peace agreement. More generally, the international community - and African nations in particular - must put the needs of Sudan's people before the interests of its leaders.
The door to a better future for Sudan remains open. But success depends on keeping to the timetable for progress set out in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Without swift and bold action from the international community - particularly from those who guarantee the peace agreement - to ensure that promises are kept, this opportunity will be lost. The consequences could be disastrous. Time is fast running out.
Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize laureate, and Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, are members of The Elders (www.TheElders.org), a group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela.