By Luka Biong Deng
August 31, 2013 - The Ngok Dinka of Abyei are expected to determine the final status of their area in October 2013 as proposed by the AU Panel and accepted by the African Union Peace and Security Council. However, Sudan continues to reject the conduct of Abyei Referendum as agreed upon by the AU. This raises a question of what will happen in October 2013 if the AU and the UN are unable to take affirmative action to ensure the conduct of the referendum on time. Importantly, what will the people of Abyei and the South do as Sudan continues to refuse the AU proposal and the inability of the international community to deliver on its promise of referendum for the people of Abyei?
I had a chance of attending the meeting of the AU Council in July 2013 that discussed the report of the AU Panel on Sudan and South Sudan. In this report, the AU Panel headed by President Mbeki stated it very clearly that “For many residents of Abyei, who have lived through repeated failures to implement past agreements, there appears to be no further patience to delay the implementation of a final settlement”. The AU Panel concluded in its report that it has no any other option except to recommend to the AU Council the full implementation of its proposal on the final status of Abyei and in accordance with the proposed timetable, unless the two countries present agreed amendments to the proposal.
In fact President Mbeki said it all in his report as there is no patience left with the people of Abyei and their dream of having a referendum in October 2013 should not be deferred again. The recent report by Enough Project on the timeline of events towards Abyei Referendum in October 2013 paints the prolonged suffering and disappointment sustained by the people of Abyei while waiting from the international community to realize their dreams of referendum. The recent press release by Kush Inc. shows exceptionally high number (about 40 percent) of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei who suffered from the Post-Traumatic Disorder illness.
Despite this apparent clarity provided by the AU Panel on Abyei, the AU Council decided again in its meeting in July 2003 to defer the proposal to the two Presidents to resolve their differences in the proposal. Indeed this decision provides Sudan with another chance to dash the dreams of the Ngok Dinka to have their referendum carried out in October 2013.
As the month of October is now approaching, the fate of Abyei referendum is at the crossroad. In fact the South Sudan parliament held special secession in June 2013 after the assassination of Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief Kuol Deng and urged the government to ensure the conduct of Abyei Referendum in October 2013. With improved relations between the two countries after the formation of new cabinet of the South, the expected visit by President Salva to Khartoum may provide the last window of opportunity for the two Presidents to agree on the conduct of Abyei referendum in October.
However, one is not optimistic that the two Presidents will agree on the conduct of Abyei referendum in October but instead Bashir may insist on the partitioning of Abyei. The closed circles to Bashir indicated that he is confident that he can now strike a deal with President Salva on the pending issues since those he perceived as radicals and extremists of the SPLM are now out of the government. One diplomat in Khartoum confided to me that there is growing feeling in the NCP that the issue of Abyei may have a chance to be resolved since none of the extremists of Abyei in the SPLM such as Deng Alor, Edward Lino and Luka Biong is in the new cabinet of the South.
One is confident that President Salva will not accept further partitioning of Abyei area after the ruling of the Hague International Court of Arbitration. In fact what President Salva can achieve from his next meeting with Bashir is to agree not to agree on the AU Proposal on Abyei and to agree to defer the proposal to the AU for the final decision. This will leave President Salva with no any other option except to push the AU to endorse the AU Panel’s Proposal on Abyei or to resort to International Court of Justice.
If Bashir rejected again the AU Proposal on Abyei, it would indeed be shameful and disgraceful if the AU Council could fail again to endorse the proposal. The AU Council has given enough time almost one year since its acceptance of the proposal in October 2012 for the two Presidents to agree on the proposal. Within this one year, the AU Council has tried its level best and as demanded by Sudan to resolve the issue of Abyei within the context of the AU rather than deferring it to the UN Security Council.
If the AU Council is keen on providing African solutions for African problems, one would expect the Council to decide in its next meeting the immediate formation of Abyei Referendum Commission and joint administrative mechanisms to support the conduct of Abyei Referendum within a period not exceeding one year. Specifically, the AU Council is expected to ask the AU Commission to appoint the Chair of Abyei Referendum Commission and the two countries to avail within specific period their two nominees to the membership of the commission. If either of the two countries failed to avail their nominees, the AU Council will be left with no any other option but to endorse and forward the proposal on Abyei to the UN Security Council for endorsement and implementation under Chapter VII of its Charter.
President Salva has repeatedly said that the issue of Abyei will not take the South again into war with Sudan as it can easily be resolved within international mechanisms. As South Sudan is now a member of the UN together with Sudan, it has an option of summiting its dispute with Sudan over Abyei to the International Court of Justice as the UN principal judicial organ. In fact the South, in lieu of a referendum to determine the final status of Abyei, has a legal claim over Abyei as part of its territory. There is no dispute that Abyei was a territory of the South and there is no dispute that the area of Abyei as defined by the Hague International Court of Arbitration is the area that was unilaterally transferred by the colonial administration in 1905 from the South.
If Bashir again rejected the proposal and the AU is unable to endorse the proposal till October, then the Ngok Dinka of Abyei, as the main targets of the referendum, are left with no option except to express their views about the final status of their area. When the simultaneous conduct of Abyei Referendum with that of the South on 9th January 2013 was obstructed by Sudan, the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms made necessary community consultation to declare their views about the final status of their area on the same day of the conduct of South Sudan referendum.
In last minute President Salva sent a delegation headed by the SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum and Deng Alor to urge the people of Abyei not to make such declaration and to allow the smooth conduct of the referendum of the South on 9th January 2011. The delegation made a commitment that the South after the referendum would ensure the conduct of Abyei referendum. It is almost approaching three years when the people of Abyei were asked by the South and SPLM not to unilaterally declare the final status of their area, yet there is no hope for a referendum to be agreed upon by the two countries.
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.
The author is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org