News / Africa

Sudans Still At Odds Over Abyei Referendum

  • Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, center-left, and South Sudan President Salva Kiir (r) celebrate the signing of 9 agreements, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 27, 2012.
  • A year after the agreements were signed, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin Marial said Sudan has blocked progress on a key issue: a referendum on Abyei's status. 
  • Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti warned South Sudan against taking unilateral action on Abyei.
  • Abyei residents, who fled to northern Sudan during the long civil war, came back ahead of a referendum that was supposed to be held for the region in January 2011.
  • Internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abyei in Akong village in South Sudan want to return to Abyei to take part in a referendum in October on the area's status, which appears unlikely to happen.
  • People from the Misseriya tribe of the Abyei region protested last year against the African Union (AU) proposal for a referendum to decide whether the region belongs to Sudan or South Sudan.

A year after the presidents of South Sudan and Sudan signed a series of agreements to consolidate peace, there are no signs that a key issue, the status of Abyei, is near to being resolved.

John Tanza
— A year after South Sudan and Sudan signed nine agreements aimed at solidifying the fragile peace between the two countries, little progress has been made on implementing the pacts, with a key issue, the status of the territory of Abyei, still up in the air, the foreign ministers of both nations told Voice of America.

South Sudanese Foreign Minister Benjamin Marial called Abyei “the most intricate problem we have with Sudan now” and, in an interview with Voice of America, said Sudan has blocked key steps laid out by the African Union to prepare for a referendum on Abyei’s status that was supposed to be held next month.

The AU last year called for the establishment of an administration for the disputed border territory, the election of a council, the creation of a police force, and for a referendum commission to be set up, and eventually set a date for the vote, which the pan-African body proposed holding in October of this year.

“What Sudan did is block the implementation of these four things, particularly the referendum commission,” Marial said as, days away from the start of October, there was no sign that the vote would be held.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti did not directly reply to a question posed in a separate interview with VOA News about what was supposed to be the looming referendum on Abyei’s status, saying merely that the African Union “knows well that if nothing is agreed upon by the two parties, nothing could be enforced.”

He also warned Juba against going it alone in Abyei, noting that “in the last statement issued by the heads of state of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, they clearly said no unilateral action should be taken as a way of resolving Abyei or any other issue."

On Friday, the AU Peace and Security Council issued a statement urging the governments of South Sudan and Sudan “to establish the Abyei Area Referendum Commission and refrain from undertaking unilateral actions” in the disputed region.

The status of the 10,000-square-kilometer area of Abyei has been in dispute since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than 20 years of civil war in Sudan.

Prized for its fertile land and oil reserves, Abyei is currently under United Nations' administration.

Abyei residents were originally supposed to vote on whether they would remain part of Sudan or become South Sudanese back in January 2011, on the same day that people in the south voted to secede from Sudan.

Last week, hundreds of protesters rallied in front of U.N. headquarters in New York to demand that Khartoum facilitate the holding of a referendum on Abyei.

Jon Temin, the Horn of Africa director for the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA News that Abyei was “foremost on the list” of bones of contention between the two Sudans “that have stalled and not moved anywhere,” in spite of two sides signing several agreements on a number of issues since South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

“It is unfortunate, in the grand scheme of things, that there isn’t more of a global commitment amongst both parties, and particularly Sudan, to things that they agreed to on paper because it really diminishes the value of negotiations as a tool for resolving disputes,” Temin said.

Khartoum has repeatedly said it will not allow the proposed referendum for Abyei to go ahead, citing the fact that Misseriya nomads, Sudanese citizens who pass through the disputed territory on their way to watering and grazing grounds for their cattle, would not be eligible to vote. 

Experts have said that Khartoum is also worried about losing access to yet another oil-producing region after South Sudan won control of most of the once unified country's oil resources when it split from the north in 2011.

Abyei community leaders have said that, regardless of how the vote goes, a final decision will allow for greater trade between South Sudan and Sudan, and finally give residents political representation.

In spite of the two foreign ministers’ downbeat comments about Abyei, both officials were positive about last year’s agreements and future relations between the two neighbors.

“Given the chance to work together, I think there is nothing to stop us,” Karti told VOA from New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly last week.

“The future is very clear to me and it’s a bright one,” he said.

Marial, meanwhile, called the nine agreements signed in Addis Ababa on Sept. 27 last year “an answer, which can bring about good neighborliness between the two states, which can guarantee the viability of the two states.”

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