North or South Sudan: Abyei's contentious vote on self-determination

Bassem Aly , Sunday 27 Oct 2013

The referendum in Abyei that begins Sunday will not alone end the political crisis between North and South Sudan over the oil-rich region, but it may force the hand of both Juba and Khartoum

People wave as they arrive on vehicles in the town of Abyei ahead of the referendum October 26, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

On Sunday, residents of the Sudanese oil-rich Abyei region will head to roughly 29 polling stations to vote in a referendum on whether to join Sudan or South Sudan.

The vote is full of contention, with Khartoum and Juba each having long asserted sovereignty in the region, spurring a crisis that has remained unsettled since the latter's independence in 2011.

The Dinka Ngok, Abyei's majority people, are expected to favour joining the South. Almost 100,000 tribal members from across the South returned to Abyei to participate in the three-day poll.

However, the vote could carry a negative aftermath, including renewed violence, with the Sudanese regime of President Omar Al-Bashir hardly able to bear the political and economic consequences of losing further territory.

Fears of ruthless military confrontations, widely witnessed during the civil war from 1983 to 2005, abound.

'We are tired'

The big announcement came 20 October, when leaders from the pro-South Sudan Dinka Ngok group said they "were tired of" waiting for a referendum on Abyei's fate, and of tolerating clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese military forces.

"We have come to the conclusion that the best way to do it, we organise our own referendum and we go on and tell the world what we want," AFP quoted Acuil Akol, a member of the committee arranging the vote, as saying.

Abyei is one of a number of conflict zones seeing clashes between the two Sudans over border demarcations and oil rights in particular. Violence resurfaced between them in 2008.  

Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher, described the situation as "extremely dangerous and will remain so" until a fair referendum is held as per the terms of a African Union (AU) proposal that mirrors the terms of the Abyei Protocol that was part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war in 2005.

Reeves, who served as a consultant to a number of humanitarian organisations operating in Sudan, referred to the refusal of both Sudanese governments to recognise the results of the vote, according to official statements.

"The real question is when the binding referendum will take place. While it was to have been October 2013, according to the plan put forward by African Union negotiators and endorsed by the AU Peace and Security Council, Khartoum has balked," he said.

Reeves warned against the reaction of the pro-Sudan Arab Misseriya nomads who demanded the right to vote over the future of Abyei as they sustain their livestock in the region for long periods of the year, a scenario that could "force the hand of" Juba and its Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

The United Nations, which is the only authority in the area, has previously warned that any unilateral move would risk inflaming tensions in war-ravaged Abyei, while the AU emphasised that a solution under its umbrella would be "fair, equitable and workable."  

Al-Bashir in Juba for Abyei's sake

According to an agreement signed in 2012, the two Sudanese governments were expected to establish a transitional administrative entity and a police force in Abyei that would encompass officials from the Dinka Ngok and Misseriya.

Moreover, the deal stipulated the foundation of a legislative body based on a 60-40 distribution of seats between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya respectively. Unsurprisingly, disagreements ruined hopes for a peaceful political settlement. 

Meanwhile, Al-Bashir visited Juba Tuesday for talks on Abyei with counterpart Salva Kiir. "We are ready to go the extra mile to make peace with Sudan," Kiir said after saying the talks were "fruitful."

"The meeting with my brother Salva Kiir was fruitful ... We will make sure all the outstanding issues are implemented," Bashir said in response.

Nevertheless, neither party announced a new agreement on the region, which currently hosts 4,000 Ethiopin-led UN peacekeeping troops.

To a great extent, the roots of the crisis between the two states lie less in political than in economic grounds, Sudanese blogger and activist Namaa Al-Mahdi told Ahram Online.

"As a result of South Sudan's secession, Sudan lost about 70 percent of export revenue and 40 percent of total income," Al-Mahdi said.

This is to be added to billions of dollars lost in oil revenues following the secession of South Sudan, explaining why rivalry over the small oil-producing Abyei region is so intense.

"South Sudan's oil, which was transported via overground pipes through Sudan to Port Sudan, has been shut down by orders of the country's president. This could have been a source for some revenue," Al-Mahdi noted.

The last few weeks saw a large number of anti-government protests in Sudan in the wake of the suspension of subsidises on petroleum products.

Last year, similar scenes were witnessed in Khartoum following prices hikes and austerity measures adopted by the government.

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