Talks on the disputed Abyei region are expected to dominate an upcoming summit when the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan meet next month.
Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir, and Salva Kiir Mayardit, of South Sudan, are scheduled to meet at an undetermined site on September 22.
The two leaders last met on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital July 14.
The Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC), which is made up of representatives from both countries, began meeting on Wednesday to prepare for the presidential summit. The committee provides political and administrative oversight on Abyei for the two leaders.
AJOC co-chairman, South Sudan’s Luka Biong, said the committee hopes to “do some work on the ground that will create a conducive environment for the summit.”
“We will be discussing various issues,” Biong said. “One is about the inter-communal dialogue especially among the nomads [and] the Dinka Ngok, and also how to assist the return of the people to the Abyei area.”
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan’s civil war, provided for a referendum to be held in Abyei in January 2011 - the same time an independence vote was held in what was then southern Sudan.
Both parties agree on the need to hold a referendum on the future of Abyei. However, they disagree on who should serve on the commission to organize the referendum and who can vote on the referendum.
Biong said he believes the dispute over Abyei could be resolved quickly if the two leaders have the political will to do so. He said, “If we can agree to have equal representation of the two countries on the commission, and if we also agree on the issue of eligibility of who is to vote, then we can resolve the Abyei issue.”
Since its formation following clashes between the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Sudan’s armed forces in Abyei in May 2011, the committee has been providing monthly updates to the two leaders on the situation in Abyei.
“We are helping the two parties or the two countries by giving our opinion as part of the delegations of the negotiating teams to the two presidents to update them on the situation on the ground and those reports will help them to have an idea about how to resolve the issue of Abyei,” he explained.
He said the challenges include how to mitigate the consequences to Sudan if people in Abyei choose to become a part of South Sudan.
The African Union panel , which is mediating the talks between Juba and Khartoum, is expected to present a position paper on the final status of Abyei when the two leaders are set to meet next month.
“It will be upon the two parties to accept or reject [the proposals] and whoever rejects will take us back to square one. It will mean that there is no oil agreement and it means that we will not have any progress,” Biong said.