By Ngor Arol Garang
November 7, 2010 (JUBA) - Local authorities from the contested oil producing region of Abyei say they are preparing to receive over 36,000 internally displaced persons from various other locations in northern Sudan.
Currently part of the north, Abyei could be transferred to south Sudan as part of a referendum in January. The south is due to hold its own plebiscite simultaneously, in which southern Sudanese are widely expected vote to become fully independent from the north.
Abyei, situated on the north-south border was seriously affected by two decades of civil war between north and south, in which the UN estimate two million died and four million were displaced.
On the frontline between the two main armed groups in the north-south civil war, citizens from the oil producing region fled both north and south to escape the fighting.
The conflict formerly ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 between the Khartoum government the former southern rebels the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
Many returned to the area following CPA but were forced to flee again during a serious confrontation in Abyei town in May 2008 between the Khartoum controlled Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the SPLA.
On Saturday the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) Valerie Amos visited the town of Agok, where 50,000 people fled from the 2008 clashes.
According to the UN 52,000 people receive food assistance in the greater Abyei area.
The issue of the Abyei referendum is complicated by the ongoing dispute between Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party and the SPLM, who have governed the south since 2005, over who is eligible to vote. Talks are due to resume later this week.
Ms. Amos insisted that a "negotiated access framework be agreed between the North and the South in the transitional areas in order to ensure that humanitarian partners are able to deliver assistance to vulnerable populations in areas where conflict could erupt […]people in need of humanitarian assistance must be assisted irrespective of which side of the border they find themselves."
The top UN humanitarian official met with Deng Arop Kuol, the local chief Administrator, said the area is preparing to receive all the registered internally displaced persons who are ready to return to the area.
Speaking to Sudan Tribune on Saturday from Abyei town Kuol said, “We have 36,000 internally displaced persons already registered and willing to return home. The area is preparing to receive them in coming days.”
He said he had asked citizens of the area to be prepared to “share whatever they have in term[s] of accommodation and food” with the returnees.
But he said that his administration would provide “security and social amenities like health services, water, education, land and other assistances in order to help them resettle.”
The official said he had requested United Nations to assist administration in providing basic services such as health, water, food and shelter as well as education facilities.
“I raised the issue of education to the United Nations’ under- Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in our meeting because, with these returnees, there are 16, 000 pupils still pursuing rudimentary education and 6,000 from high schools,” said Kuol.
Abyei’s administrator said that he briefed Amos on security issues. He told Sudan Tribune he informed her that the SAF was building up troops on the border and around oil fields. He also requested that the UN put pressure on Khartoum to ensure civilians coming from the north to the south by these forces has been harassed by the northern army. The SAF have denied both allegations.
“We discussed a lot of issues of which, the issue of security, especially the building up of troops around strategic areas on the side of Sudan Armed Forces and the reluctance of the international community to honor most of the pledges made in the past during visits to the area,” said Kuol.
He also “requested the United Nations to assist us in the repair of the road linking Agok with Abyei and in provision of none food items to the internally displaced persons” such as “grinding mills and temporary shelters in form of tarpaulins.”
The SPLM official said he also briefed the top level UN delegation on current stalemate between two parties. Kuol said that he told the UN that NCP is demanding that the Misseriya - many of whom are pastoralists and do not reside permanently in Abyei - as bargaining tool.
“I have also briefed them on current talks and what the NCP is doing with Misseriya. The National Congress Party is using them as bargaining tool. Misseriya do not have any single right over Abyei but wants them included in the referendum commission and vote. This is source deadlock,” said Kuol
Kuol said that the NCP demand that the Misseriya are included in the vote contradicts the Abyei protocol of the CPA, which they had signed in 2005.
In the peace deal states that the Misseriya are not defined as residents of Abyei, but it ensured that they ‘retain their traditional rights to graze cattle and move across the territory of Abyei’ (Abyei Protocol, article 1.1.3).
Douglas H. Johnson, a British expert and former member of The Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) wrote in 2007 that "The Abyei Protocol stated that ‘the territory is defined as the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905’ (Abyei Protocol, article 1.1.2), but the two sides could not agree on what the extent of that territory was."
Misseriya traditional leaders reject Abyei protocol and the decision of Permanent Court of Arbitration, which defined Abyei’s borders.
Since the ruling in July 2009 the two parties have failed to demarcate the border of Abyei and have not been able to agree on the formation of the commission to organise the referendum. These issues and the stalemate over Misseriya voting rights have been cited by members of the NCP as reasons to delay the vote.
So far the SPLM have rejected any suggestion that the Misseriya should be allowed to vote and say the NCP is delibertaely stalling the border demarcation and formation of the Abyei Referendum Commission.
But the Misseriya blame the SPLM, Southern Sudan’s ruling party for the current tension in the oil producing area.
In September, Mukhtar Babo Nimr, a traditional chief of the Misseriya, threatened to use force to defend their rights in Abyei
"If they don’t accept our votes in the referendum there will be no voting," Nimr said.
"We will use force to achieve our rights and we will use weapons against anyone who tries to stop us from voting in the referendum [...] If they don’t meet our demands then we will set everything alight. If that leads to war then so be it." he warned.
The Misseriya fear if the south secedes and the north-south border becomes an international boundary, they will lose grazing rights to the land and their livelihoods.
Some members of the SPLM have said that a deal over Abyei could include giving dual citizenship rights to the Misseriya but they continue to reject their participation in the vote.