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Abyei Referendum: Sudan wants is oil, South Sudan wants its people

These are the words of Taban Abel Aguek, a Member of State Parliament in Rumbek, Lakes State published on yesterday. “It is clear what Sudan wants in Abyei is oil, but South Sudan wants its people“. Very clear indeed but the situation can be more complicated than it appears. Abyei is a one million square miles region, it has oil and fertile land. The Ngok Dinka, sub-Saharan cattle herders, are the vast majority in Abyei but the nomadic Misseriya tribe is also part of the equation. Not mentioning Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir (charged with Darfur genocide by the International Criminal Court) literally fighting for his country’s interests.

The status of Abyei was one of the most contentious issues in the negotiation of  the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and a separate referendum to determine whether Abyei belongs to Sudan or South Sudan was supposed to be held alongside the South Sudan referendum in 2011. It didn’t. A year later,  in September 2012, the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) proposed holding a referendum on Abyei’s political future in October 2013; South Sudan assured the Abyei referendum will be held as scheduled next month, as proposed by the African Union.

I already mentioned the dire situation in Abyei in my previous posts in 2011: Dancing with a dictator in Sudan, again., South Sudan: Render unto southern Sudanese that which is theirs and last year: Sudan: divide and rule, the winning strategy. I’ve been interested in Sudan since 1989, advocating for Darfur since 2003, and I have had interesting, sometimes vivid discussions with Sudanese, South Sudanese, Darfuris as well as representatives of political groups and organizations… Even if they could have some very different views on the overall situation, all agreed on the fact that the fates of Sudan and South Sudan are inextricably intertwined, for better or for worse. The best being, unfortunately, yet to come.

This is why all the attention is now focused on the oil-rich region of Abyei and the upcoming referendum. Last week in an article published on SudanTribune, Samuel Marial Dongrin, the chairperson of Jeing Youth Union in South Sudan’s Lakes state, urged the Arab Misseriya nomads and the nine Dinka Ngok chiefdoms to focus on national unity rather than tribal-related matters. “We called on the government of Sudan to disengage [with the] Misseriya tribe from making Abyei as tribal case between Nine Dinka Ngok chiefdoms and [the] Misseriya tribe and to allow [the] Abyei referendum to be held according [to the] guiding principles [of the international] court of arbitration Ruling and [the] African Union (AU)”.

The right for Misseriya to vote in the Abyei referendum was not enshrined in the CPA, and in its article, SudanTribune underlines that the proposal effectively rules out the Misseriya – who enter the region periodically to graze their cattle – from taking part in the plebiscite, as South-aligned Dinka Ngok residents are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of returning to South Sudan. In another article from SudanTribune, South Kordofan’s Misseriya tribe threatened to wage war on the Republic of South Sudan if the latter is embarked in organising a referendum in Abyei next October without their participation. During a discussion I organized with the MakgaSama Project this week, someone asked: Why can’t they participate? Because (I have to sum it up, it would be too long to go into details in this post), as the above-mentioned article points out: during the war time, the Misseriya were organised in militias and fought alongside the Sudanese army against the former rebel SPLM.

Back in 2010, when the Abyei referendum was first scheduled, Sudan was accused to support the Misseriya attempt to numerically flood the region and vote in favor of the north, with the construction of permanent villages. Needless to say three years have passed and the situation is still explosive and a lot is at stake. The Misseriya need access to the Kiir River for the survival of their herds but their relationship with Khartoum, ongoing violence and assassinations have long discredited the legitimacy of their vote; last year, South Sudan rejected Khartoum’s demands to include the Misseriya nomads in the vote and its proposal seeking division of the area as well as allocation of equal share of resources generated from the region, describing Sudan’s demands as irrational.

Abyei is a powder keg for the whole region. In 2008, Nick Kristof wrote: ‘Africa’s Next Slaughter‘. He quoted Chol Changath Chol, a representative of South Sudan in Abyei: ‘If there are no changes, war will come. It will break out here and spread everywhere‘, and Kristof was rather pessimistic on the situation, writing: ‘So remember this little town of Abyei. It’s the tinderbox for Africa’s next war, which will probably resemble Darfur but be carried out on a much wider scale.’ Taban Abel Aguek, who I quoted in the title, also declared: ‘If Abyei is annexed by force by Sudan then the world and Africa will have a problem to solve for so many years to come. There can be another war and a possible genocide worse than what happened in Darfur‘.

A few days ago, on EyeRadio, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti has warned the US government against involvement in issues concerning Abyei, accusing them of trying to “open the gates of hell”.

In August, Luka Biong Deng, fellow at Harvard Kennedy School wrote: ‘In fact the South and international community will not have a moral ground or justification not to allow the people of Abyei to express their views of the final status of their area if they do not have any alternative to offer to the people of Abyei. As the two countries have virtually reached political stalemate over Abyei and while the AU is to take final decision on the proposal, the people of Abyei are left with no any other option but to self-determine the final status of their area. This option of unilateral declaration by the Ngok Dinka of the final status of their area can only be avoided if the AU could endorse the proposal and UN to declare Abyei area as UN protectorate area until a referendum is conducted to determine its final status.’

International community should indeed put pressure on Sudan to hold the referendum since no other option is being offered. The people of Abyei have the right to hold a referendum to determine their own destiny even if some concerns are expressed, as reported by SudanTribune: ‘We support AU proposals for Abyei referendum but timing/format to be agreed by both sides. Unilateral action won’t help‘, UK ambassador at the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant.

The complexity of the Abyei issue makes any option a potential conflict that could spark further large-scale violence. And from the recent discussions I have had and from what I have read so far on the topic of the Abyei Referendum, if there is a clear, strong support for the October referendum, there is also a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension in a continuous  flow of destabilizing violence, economic interests and political manipulation that need to be addressed and solved, for the best of the region and its inhabitants who have the right to live in peace.

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