Sudan's Abyei remains a thorny issue

2010-12-09 22:17

Khartoum - Washington has said out loud what everyone else has been whispering - that the self-determination referendum in Sudan's oil-rich region of Abyei will not take place as planned on January 9.

What people are asking now is what will be the outcome for this strategic region? A negotiated settlement or renewed conflict?

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said "I think we have a recognition that that referendum will not go forward on January 9th, but we continue to encourage the parties to work on a solution to Abyei."

"We continue to press the parties with respect to the situation in Abyei."

Abyei is on the fault line between north and south Sudan and a referendum is due on whether it remains part with the north or joins an autonomous or independent south, which decides its future in a parallel January 9 vote.

The vote was a central feature of a 2005 peace agreement that put an end to more than two decades of civil war between the north and the south.

North-South talks on Abyei broke down in Ethiopia in November, prompting northern officials to say it would now be impossible to hold the vote on time.

Not appointed yet

The Abyei referendum commission has yet to be appointed and the parties remain divided on voter eligibility. In contrast, preparations in the south are in full swing and almost three million people have signed up to vote.

While Crowley was making his announcement in Washington former president Thabo Mbeki - the African Union's point man on Sudan - was holding talks in Khartoum with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and south Sudan leader Salva Kiir.

The African Union had proposed to Bashir and Kiir a solution to solve the Abyei stalemate, details of which were never revealed to the media.

"The two parties deal seriously with our proposal," Mbeki said after his meeting with the two men.

Crowley's announcement sparked angry reactions.

"It is unacceptable, and we would be very upset if there is no referendum in Abyei," said Chol Deng, chair of the Abyei Referendum Forum, a group pressing for the vote to go ahead.

Bashir's "National Congress Party has dragged and dragged its feet to slow the progress of the referendum in Abyei, and now they say there is no time left."

Simple choice

"This leads us with a simple choice: either go ahead and hold the referendum as laid down in the peace agreement, or hand over Abyei to the south."

In a report released in November the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank described Abyei as a "flashpoint".

"Abyei has long been, and remains, a flashpoint, where land, nomadic grazing rights, security, and (formerly) oil contribute to volatility," it said.

For more than 200 years, Arab nomads of the northern Misseriya tribe have been migrating to Abyei with their cattle during the dry season to take advantage of its grazing land and water from the Bahr al-Arab river.

The southern Dinka Ngok tribe also covet Abyei's land and water and has been moving its cattle there for grazing since the onset of the 20th century.

"Many Misseriya fear that secession of the south, possibly including Abyei, could result in a loss of grazing rights, thereby threatening their way of life," the ICG said.

Tensions rising

The Misseriya have threatened to derail the referendum if they are not granted the same voting rights as Ngok Dinka tribesman, settled farmers seen as favourable to joining the south.

And tensions have been rising as the clock ticks down to the Misseriya's annual migration, which should see them arrive in late December, a week or two before the scheduled referendum.

Following deadly clashes in 2008, the Khartoum government and the former southern rebels took the dispute to international arbitration in The Hague. That truncated the region, leaving the oil-rich northern and eastern parts in north Sudan.

Khartoum and the semi-autonomous southern government accepted the decision, but the Misseriya did not.

"For us, Abyei is not about oil but about water, water which is essential to our survival," a Misseriya leader said.

According to referendum law only the Dinka Ngok and "other residents" of Abyei can vote in the January referendum - leaving the Misseriya out.