JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir have reaffirmed their commitment to peace after talks in the southern capital, Juba. The former civil war foes described Tuesday's talks as “historic” but there was no movement on disputes over borders, contested territory, trade and oil.
It was hugs, smiles and military salutes as Bashir touched down in Juba for the second time since South Sudan gained independence from the north in 2011.
After Bashir stepped off a plane carrying dozens of officials and a team of journalists, the two presidents were whisked off to talk about a raft of unrealized deals key to keeping the peace between former adversaries.
The contested area of Abyei straddling the largely undefined border, and the opening of crossing points sealed due to insecurity and squabbles over oil and territory were expected to top the agenda.
The two men say they discussed much more, though, delaying a news conference for over two hours.
Aside from Kiir praising his counterpart for giving food aid to victims of South Sudan floods, and announcing that the two nations would abolish the need for “diplomatic, special and official visas,” he did not outline any solutions for contested border territory.
“We are delighted to be with you, and it will go down in history that now things are changing for the better. We have witnessed one agreement being signed, and we have agreed on many things.”
Bashir reciprocated, adding that war was in the past and the “new history between Sudan and South Sudan” would be determined through talks aimed at settling issues.
The sides are trying to put in place a demilitarized border with crossing points for people and trade. They also seek greater financial cooperation between central banks, relief from debt and sanctions for Sudan, and finally, the settling of the Abyei dispute.
Kiir said this was “the major issue” they had discussed, as the two countries vie for control of a heart-shaped, oil-producing area. The region's people were supposed to decide their fate in a referendum, but instead have seen two invasions by Sudan in the past five years.
The two nations cannot agree on who should be eligible to vote, as the majority of Abyei’s residents are Ngok Dinka allied to the South but many Arab herdsmen from the Misseriya group inhabit the area for half the year with grazing cattle.
Ngok Dinka's referendum
The Ngok Dinka have grown so frustrated with stalled or botched agreements, they have announced they will carry out a unilateral vote next week, regardless of either Sudan or South Sudan’s support.
Kiir and Bashir said Tuesday they will form an Abyei Council and make sure that the 2 percent of future and past oil revenues from fields currently controlled by the north will be paid to the council, including arrears.
Whether these pledges of peace will make it up to the flashpoint area in time for the Misseriya crossing - and an upcoming vote that could easily spark a border confrontation - remains to be seen.
Last year, disputes over oil and contested fields sparked weeks of fighting that many feared would cause a return to all-out war.