Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 20 September 2010

Abyei – Sudan’s Other Referendum: Where things stand now


By Roger Winter

September 19, 2010 — As I mentioned earlier this week, it’s hard not to see the numerous roadblocks now raised by Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, as reasons to postpone the Abyei referendum as deliberate stalling tactics. Given the lack of outside attention to Abyei, this strategy is proving effective.

One of the main obstacles cited by NCP officials is the lack of the demarcation of Abyei’s boundaries. Of course, it was President Bashir who chose not to implement the borders laid out in 2005 by the Abyei Boundary Commission for three years. Then it was the 31st Brigade of the Sudan Armed Forces that destroyed Abyei in May 2008 that then led to the referral of the Abyei borders issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Abyei Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague. Khartoum publicly accepted the tribunal’s decision on Abyei’s borders on July 22, 2009, but nevertheless failed to implement the ruling by demarcating the boundaries on the ground. Then it was Khartoum that waited until July 31, 2010, a full year after its previous public acceptance, to announce that the tribunal’s ruling “did not resolve the dispute” and that “new solutions” must be found. Why did it do so? It never intended to fulfill the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

On the first anniversary of the Hague tribunal’s ‘final and binding decision,’ in light of the flight of time and the Abyei referendum’s imminent approach, Vice President of the Government of South Sudan Riek Machar said , “the demarcation of (Abyei’s) border has been stalled and politicized unnecessarily. This now threatens the peace.” On behalf of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Machar called on the Government of Sudan to join it in efforts to demarcate the area within 30 days, a very doable task, given that the demarcation team already existed. Machar stressed that the referendum on the future of Abyei would not be held off by the deadlock in the demarcation process. “Whether the demarcation takes place or not, the borders of Abyei are fixed and known. Delaying the demarcation has no effect on changing Abyei’s defined borders,” he said. It was in response to Marchar’s challenge that Khartoum decided to finally publicly reverse its position and announce its rejection of the Hague tribunal’s decision on Abyei’s boundaries, only five months before the referendum.

The Assessment and Evaluation Commission, the entity set up to monitor and support the implementation of the CPA, indicated that these developments were a “matter of real concern,” an unfortunately tepid response indicative of the longer term wimpish disregard of Abyei issues by the international community. No wonder the people of Abyei publicly state their fear that Khartoum’s price to ultimately allow the South’s referendum to happen is that the Abyei referendum be aborted or delayed, or as some have proposed, turned over to the U.N to sort out a way forward – an option strongly rejected by Abyei’s people.

On August 15 the Political Bureau of the SPLM unanimously agreed that the movement of people being resettled in Abyei by the northern government constituted a “grave” security threat. “The Bureau as a means of solving this problem appealed to the international security bodies to come to the rescue of the people of Abyei before the problem takes a different turn, from a mere tribal conflict to genocide,” said a statement quoted in The Citizen . On August 22 Pagan Amum indicated publicly that, if the deadlock continues, the SPLM “will resort to other measures such as conducting Abyei’s referendum directly through the region’s local administration.”

The voices of the people of Abyei which have cried out for international attention repeatedly is now calling urgently for international political intervention to break the stalemate between the parties. Reading the analysis contained in the Abyei Referendum: Position Paper of the Abyei Civil Society makes clear the fears, anger, and desperation of the people. They fear being displaced again; they fear their efforts to rebuild are literally going to go up in smoke again; they fear their core political dream being deferred again.

Abyei has become somewhat of a poster child for why neither the United States nor the United Nations can be automatically relied on over time to follow through in defending trapped populations under serious threat. When Abyei was destroyed in May 2008, the UNMIS force in Abyei remained in its “fort” until the violence subsided. Similarly, the U.S. wrote the Abyei Protocol that sealed the last hole in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, producing not less than five and a half years of ‘non-war’ between Khartoum and the South. Thereafter, the Bush administration disappeared from the Abyei scene, and the Obama administration has rarely uttered the word Abyei. The only constant in the story is the suffering of the people of this volatile region.

The international community has a crucial role to play in holding the Sudanese parties to their commitments to ensure that the people of Abyei do not see their long-awaited opportunity to determine their own future fall by the wayside. Of course, the people there will not let this chance slip away quietly. As numerous Sudan watchers have warned, if full-scale war returns to Sudan, its spark will likely ignite in Abyei.

Roger Winter has authored multiple reports on Sudan’s volatile region of for the Enough Project. Now, with only four months before the referendum on Abyei is scheduled to be held, he will provide an update on the latest developments on the ground in Abyei in a series of posts for Enough Said. The first three are here, here , and here .

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