Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 28 October 2013

Why I care about the Abyei Referendum

By Esther Sprague

In August, Ashai Arop Bagat, a good friend and a native of Abyei, asked me to help raise awareness about and support for the Abyei Referendum scheduled by the African Union for October 2013. Ashai was near Abyei when the government of Sudan attacked and destroyed it in 2011. She was there when a mother walked for miles to carry her children to safety and then died on the side of the road - something Ashai will never forget.

The Abyei region of Sudan, which sits on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, was introduced to me by one of Abyei’s and Sudan’s greatest friends, Roger Winter, the U.S. State Department’s former Representative to Sudan. In 2008, the New York Times published a piece on Roger and Abyei. In re-reading the article, it is remarkable to see how the regime has repeatedly and successfully manipulated the international community, keeping it at arm’s length in order to achieve its objective of stealing the resources of the country.

In the New York Times’ article, Roger is quoted as saying to the people of Abyei, “Honestly, the people that have your interests at heart are you, really only you….it’s your place, it’s your life, it’s your future.” This weekend, the Abyei community is taking Roger’s words to heart by conducting its own referendum since the government of Sudan has failed to implement the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which guaranteed the permanent residents of Abyei the right to decide if Abyei will belong to Sudan or South Sudan.

So because of Ashai and Roger and so many other dear friends, I care about the Abyei referendum.

But I also care about the Abyei referendum because I care about justice and good governance – the keys to peace and prosperity in Sudan. For 24 years under the Bashir regime, the people of Sudan, in every region, have experienced the exact opposite – horrible injustice, the worst form of governance, unending violence and conflict and of course, extreme poverty. The decision by the Abyei community to carry out its own referendum represents just the most recent manifestation of Khartoum’s complete and utter failure as a state.

It also represents yet another failure by the international community with regard to Sudan. Warren Buffet’s son, Howard, just published a book, “40 Chances”, that is based, in part, on more effectively addressing critical human needs by listening to those most affected – to those most in need. It’s not a new concept – but it is one that is talked about much more often than it is practiced as is the case in Sudan.

For example, the people of Darfur don’t trust the Doha peace process. It hasn’t worked for ten years, but rather than listen to the people who have lost their entire lives, the Africa Union is referring them to the UN Security Council for reprimand. Parents in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile who live in constant fear of their children being killed by bombs dropped by the government of Sudan (for the purpose of killing them) are being chastised for creating “obstacles” because they don’t trust the involvement of the same government to vaccinate their children. Calls by youth in Khartoum for an investigation into the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters has largely gone ignored. And now, the people of Abyei are being warned by the international community not to stand up for their internationally guaranteed right to their land, their homes and their future.

Why do the people of Sudan so often find themselves standing alone? And why does the international community choose to define respecting state sovereignty as following the lead of wanted criminals rather than upholding the will of the people?

Tomorrow, Sunday, October 27th, the Abyei Community will hold its referendum and I’m worried. Certain members of the Misseriya tribe, who do not represent all Misseriya, have threatened violence; and this week, the Satellite Sentinel Project issued a warning about the build-up of Sudan troops in the area. Given that the government received absolutely no consequences from the international community for wiping out Abyei in 2008 and 2011, it would not be surprising if a third attack is being planned. Just like the first two attacks (predicted by Roger), the international community knows what to expect and it has the ability to prevent violence and to protect Sudanese. The question is, does the international community have the will?

So the real point of this article is that today, Saturday, October 26th, as we sit on this side of history, while my friends from Abyei are hopeful and, for that matter, still alive, and the international community is scrambling to manage its liability, I want it to be crystal clear that if violence occurs in Abyei as a result of the referendum tomorrow, the Sudan government and the international community – specifically the AUHIP, the Africa Union and the UN Security Council – bear the responsibility for the loss of lives and property, not the people of Abyei.

Esther Sprague is the founder and director of Sudan Unlimited, a non-profit that seeks to support all Sudanese and Southern Sudanese in their efforts to secure and enjoy freedom, justice, equality, democracy, peace and prosperity.