By Ngor Arol Garang
October 30, 2013 - The people of Abyei are in the middle of a defining moment, a moving situation prompted by frustrations over repeated failures by Sudan and South Sudan to strike a deal settling the final status of the area. The Dinka Ngok are undertaking a unilateral vote to determine their own future, either to remain in Kordofan in the present day republic of Sudan or return to the Bahr el Ghazal region of what is now the independent state of South Sudan.
The Dinka Ngok did not want to take this path but what can they do since they have been denied the opportunity repeatedly. The Dinka Ngok people were promised an internationally recognised referendum but it has been repeatedly delayed since January 2011. They cannot be expected to fold arms and wait indefinitely.
It was the African Union which made the proposal to hold a referendum in October 2013, however what has been the benefit of attending summits and meetings on Abyei, considering that the AU’s own delegation was recently not allowed to enter the area by the Sudanese government.
Instead of approving the proposal and forwarding it to the United Nations Security Council in accordance to its 2012 roadmap (which had tight timelines during which both sides were expected to reach a consensus or take decision in the event that they fail to fix the date, appoint the electoral commission head and ask the two sides to send their nominations) the African Union decided to continue pushing the issue to the table of the two presidents who have repeatedly failed to agree. What does not this mean to people who have suffered decades of conflict? Why does the AU insist on supporting indefinite discussions which South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has admitted will not bare fruit?
It is this spiteful situation that any human being could understand the cumulative frustrations of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei which pushed them to them to this point. This could have been averted if an understanding to conduct the referendum had been reached at the last presidential summit. But it appears the impetus of the summit was more aimed at addressing the issues related to internal criticism within their respective countries.
Many Sudanese and South Sudanese citizens question whether the two ruling parties still enjoy the moral authority, legitimacy and the motivation to prioritize the Abyei problem. News headlines frequently quoted senior government officials making statements which appear as if the centres of power in Juba and Khartoum would put Abyei at the top of the agenda for the presidential summit.
Unfortunately, the highly anticipated event on which the hope of Ngok Dinka was pinned ended up discussing issues largely related to the bilateral cooperation agreement and gave little sensitivity to Abyei conflict. This was a stunning oversight as many expected the summit to be dominated by the Abyei conflict.
This is the fifth times the two heads of state have failed to strike a deal after the six months of the initial grace period given by the African Union had elapsed. The latest failure not only dashed hopes of any settlement coming out from the two countries, but proof that the two sides would never agree on the way forward, even if they were to be allowed to continue bilateral discussions for hundred years, according to President Salva Kiir in his recent assessment of the situation.
The empirical evidence supports that the status quo will continue since developments in both countries show that the regimes are undergoing a critical internal power-struggle, which resulted in some serious divisions within its core constituencies including security, military and political ideologues. These divisions in both countries are happening at the time the presidents are looking to secure support another term in office, particularly in the case of South Sudan where President Salva Kiir haa made radical changes in his cabinet, including the removal of his deputy, Riek Machar, who had openly admitted his desire to replace Kiir as president in elections in 2015.
Despite remaining in power, feels he can only secure return to the presidency at the next elections if he lubricates his bid with cash which comes from the oil precedes exported to the international markets through Sudanese territory. The continuation or oil exports through Sudan are the primary political interest of South Sudan and the Juba is not disposed to jeopardize this by pushing Khartoum too hard on issues such as Abyei.
Meanwhile Sudan, which undergoes serious economic challenges coupled with armed rebellions in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, takes the lack of visionary leadership in South Sudan as “a big plus” to gains it made in the September 2012 cooperation agreement. Indeed president Al-Bashir feels in control of the situation since his policies are implemented without objection by the leadership in South Sudan. This is seen in the manner in which the cabinet hurriedly passed the communique of the summit which contains all contentious matters ranging from security to economic issues.
According to information and broadcasting minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, on Friday 25 October, during a press briefing after attending the weekly cabinet sitting, the cabinet had agreed to order committees involved in the implementation of cooperation agreement to operationalise all the resolutions of the communique. There was no question of thorough study or even consultations to gather public views. This means that the regime will now go on a joint diplomatic outreach with Khartoum to campaign for debt relief.
This is because the government does not want questions asking specifics of the debt it will now go on a campaign to assist Sudan. The elites do not see Sudanese delegation going back home with full package while remaining scratching their heads with virtually nothing, claiming they have secured the oil flow. The flow of the oil serves the economic interest of both countries. The transit and pipeline charges are a big boost to the contracting Sudanese economy. It should not therefore be viewed as an achievement. Similarly, the four freedoms do not benefit anybody in the South. If any, it is the government of Sudan since it is the country with products to sell in our markets. We produce virtually nothing to sell to the north. Our only product is oil.
The equivalent gains from the summit to attract a smile from the people of South Sudan would have been a consensus on Abyei to conduct the referendum this month, including pulling out troops currently still occupying the northern part of Abyei in Kec (Diffra) in defiance of the United Nations Security Council resolution 2046 and the African Union roadmap, reach an understanding on the status of the contested and claimed areas, particularly abandoning a claim it lays on the 14 miles area and pull out troops from the identified designated safe demilitarized buffer zones from which the SPLA forces have withdrawn.
In summary, the summit did not benefit the country in anyway. The resolutions contained in the final communique are not different from the previous summits which did not address fundamental issues. The government of Sudan remains the sole beneficiary. The Ngok Dinka people of Abyei have spent more than fifty years moving and forging alliances with the oppressed and marginalised groups in Sudan in pursuit of their rights to return south where the area was administratively transferred to Kordofan in 1905.
It is now 108 years since the area was annexed to Kordofan and attempts to return it south has always faced difficulties, despite this right heard in formal agreements. It was first heard in the 1972 Addis Ababa accord which ended the first civil war in Sudan between the South and North, but which was not implemented just as it was not January 2011, after the same right was heard in the 2005 accord which ended the second civil war with Sudan in which they also participated as was in the past wars.
The interests and motives in participating in all these wars were not because they are war mongers nor were they enticed. They consciously joined the rebellions in pursuit of their interest, which is allowing them to decide their future in a referendum.
Since they have exhausted all the legally required opportunities, including going to court, there is nothing the international community would expect from them to do than to exercise their right by organising their own referendum and decide their fate, since chances of the two countries agreeing to settle the dispute once and for all is almost an impossible to foresee. Postponing it again with no evidential guarantee, is practically unjustifiable, and they should therefore be supported to make their own choice so their true national identity becomes known to them and their friends.
Garang is a South Sudanese journalist based in Juba. He writes for Sudan Tribune, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org