By Luka Biong Deng
As the deadline promised by the African Union for the conduct of Abyei Referendum in October 2013 is fast approaching, it is useful to reflect on the genesis of Abyei Referendum. The Machakos Protocol that was signed by the SPLM and government of Sudan on 20th June 2002 laid a framework for the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement including the right of self-determination to the people of the South. However, this protocol was a setback to the people of Abyei as the boundaries of the South were narrowly defined as they stood on 1/1/1956 and subsequently excluded Abyei area.
Unlike Machakos Protocol, the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement defined the boundaries of the South as they stood on 1/1/1956 and any other areas that were culturally and geographically a part of Southern Complex as may be decided by a referendum. This expanded definition of the South in the Addis Agreement was a recognition of the role played by people of Abyei in Anyanya I in the first civil war. As the people of Abyei participated even more in the SPLM in the second civil war, the signing of Machakos Protocol that excluded Abyei was to their big disappointment and they felt that their cause was compromised and abandoned.
However, this fatal mistake in Machakos Protocol was corrected when Dr John prevailed on the government of Sudan to accept to resolve as well the conflicts of Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Abyei area. As a result a parallel negotiation process for the three areas under the auspicious of Kenya was agreed by the parties. When agreements on Security Arrangements and wealth sharing were signed, Dr John made it clear that the signing of the agreement on power sharing is conditional on reaching agreement on conflicts of Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Abyei area. In fact Dr John insisted that the issue of Abyei is clear and it should be administratively transferred back to the South since it was transferred from the territory of the South to the North in 1905 by the British colonial administration to protect the Ngok Dinka from the Misseriyia slave raids.
When the two parties almost reached a dead-end on Abyei, Dr John came under a lot of pressure not only from international community but also from within the leadership of the SPLM to conclude peace agreement without Abyei. In the light of this mounting pressure on him, Dr John called for a meeting of the leadership of SPLM in Naivasha in Kenya to build consensus over the negotiation with the government of Sudan. In that meeting some members of the SPLM leadership out of desperation argued for the agreement to be signed without Abyei that would be resolved later on. Dr John and most members of the SPLM leadership were clear and adamant and insisted on no agreement without Abyei.
With this stalemate on Abyei, the US Special Envoy Senator John Danforth presented to the parties on 19th March 2004 a proposal titled “Principles of Agreement on Abyei”. These principles included the simultaneous conduct of Abyei Referendum with that of South Sudan. The parties adopted these principles and they became the basis for resolving Abyei conflict. With this breakthrough on Abyei, agreement on power sharing, agreement on Abyei and agreement of two areas were signed on the same day of 26th May 2004. This account paints very well the patriotic leadership of Dr John and his commitment to the values of liberation struggle and comradeship.
After the conclusion of all protocols of the CPA, Dr John with the leadership of the SPLM decided to visit many liberated areas in order to explain these agreements to the people. I was fortunate be among the people who accompanied him during these visits. Dr John was very particular to visit Abyei and indeed he arrived to Agok on 16th June 2004 and he was exceptionally well received by the people of Abyei. Dr John decided to talk to the people of Abyei in Dinka so that he could pass well his message. His speech was fabulous and touching. His speech reminded me of the Great Speech of Martin Luther King as he provided a hopeful vision to the people of Abyei who suffered a great.
Dr John started his speech by recognized the struggle of the people of Abyei. He said: “I will start my speech with the word ’Congratulation!’ it is congratulation to you; because your homeland has been liberated, it is now in your hands and it is no longer in somebody else’s hands. I congratulate you for the achievement you have made; for the struggle you have made. You struggled for fifty years (50 years) and some will say for one hundred years (100 years)….. I congratulate you for the struggle you have made and it is that struggle you have made that brought these rights”.
In a unique way Dr John recognized that the people of Abyei started their struggle even earlier than that of the South. He said: “Your struggle started in 1954, before the Torit mutiny in 1955. It is the struggle of Abyei that started first. The children of the school went to Rij el Fulla in 1954. They went to petition in Rij el Fulla because they saw what was coming, that their homeland was going to be occupied by strangers. Those students were arrested and that was the beginning of the struggle of the Abyei people. So from 1954 to 2004, it is exactly fifty years (50 years). You have gotten your rights after 50 years; I congratulate you”.
Dr John recognized the significant contribution made by people of Abyei in the first civil war. He said: “If there is somebody who claims that I am the one who liberated Abyei that is not true. It is you people who were struggling who liberated Abyei. Mine was only negotiation; but there were/are people who fought for Abyei since 1954. Also, from 1965 many of your people lost their lives during the Anyanya I, and you led the forces of Anyanya I in Bahr el Ghazal and people like Akonon Mithiang lost their lives because of your homeland”.
Dr John also recognized the outstanding role played by people of Abyei in the second civil war. He said: “You also led the Anyanya II, and people like Miokol Deng whom I met in Bil-Fam also lost their lives because of your homeland. So it is your struggle that liberated Abyei, you have struggled for the last fifty years. You have fought for 50 years and that your right has been given to you in the negotiation in a place called Naivasha”.
On referendum Dr John said the following: “The remaining war of ’referendum’ is an easy war. What is needed now is your unity and that you must work collectively. Because you have won the war for Abyei and I say there is nothing that will abrogate the protocol”. For people to participate in the referendum and development of Abyei, Dr John sent a powerful message to the people of Abyei to return home. He said: “Everybody must come back; people must come back to Abyei land. The nine sections of the Ngok Dinka that are contained in the protocol must come back. Ngok Dinka must return to their home areas, wherever they are in the Diaspora”. This is almost the same message that President Salva is echoing these days for people of Abyei to return home before the conduct of Abyei referendum in October 2013.
In some of my rare encounters with him, Dr John had a plan and a vision for Abyei. He wanted to transform Abyei and to become an exemplary people-centred development nucleus and economic bridging hub between Sudan and South Sudan. Interestingly, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles, shared the same vision of Dr John for the development of Abyei. The same was echoed by Sudan Mirror Editor who held meetings with Dr John after the conclusion of the CPA and assured him that Abyei was on the top of his agendas and his first priorities and that “while he was alive he would never let down the Ngok Dinka people of Abyei or the Abyei cause”. In his address to the people of Abyei he said: “It is said that Abyei is floating on oil. Let us use this oil money to develop Abyei, this is when people will return”. In fact the vision of Dr John about Abyei is well captured in the AU Proposal on the final status of Abyei.
As the issue of Abyei now rests with the African Union Peace and Security Council, one hopes that the Council will have the African wisdom to endorse the AU Proposal on Abyei and to immediately form the Abyei referendum commission. By doing so the Council will not only contain the mounting tension in the area but they will restore peace and lay a basis for transforming Abyei within the vision of Dr John as expounded very well in the AU Proposal on Abyei; a truly African solution.
Luka Biong Deng is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior member of South Sudan’s ruling SPLM. He can be reached at email@example.com.