News / Africa

E. Africa Summit Expected to Push Sudanese Parties Toward Referendum Deal

East African leaders are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Addis Ababa to try to pressure north and south Sudan to settle critical issues blocking a January referendum on southern independence.  Our correspondent reports that ministers laying the groundwork for the summit are hoping for a breakthrough.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is in Addis Ababa for the one day summit.  So is southern Sudanese President Salva Kir, along with the leaders of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti.  The meeting was called under the auspices of the East African economic group known as IGAD, or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

Somalia will be the only IGAD country not expected to be represented at the meeting.  President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is said to be busy at home with pressing business.   

The summit is intended to break a north-south deadlock over several critical issues that threaten to scuttle the January 9 referendum on southern Sudan's independence.

Experts say that unless key differences are settled during the next few days, it will be impossible to organize the vote, which is a critical element of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of war.

IGAD foreign ministers meeting on Monday reported progress on a formula they hope could break the impasse.  Kenya's Acting Foreign Minister George Saitoti says the deal would involve focusing solely on priority issues surrounding the status of the oil-rich Abyei region and the citizenship of its people, while putting aside other issues until after the referendum.

"There are going to be two categories," said Saitoti. "Priority issues are the ones that need to be addressed, before referendum.  There are going to still remain and will be the post-referendum issues that deliberations will be moving.  Issues that must be addressed fully are demarcation, citizenship.  Abyei is a key issue, including matters relating to wealth."

Ethiopia's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn says the hoped-for key to success will be having the principals to the dispute sit face-to-face in the presence of concerned regional leaders.

"Abyei is the major issue, and this issue has been transferred to the principals - the president of Sudan as well as the first vice president and president of the government of South Sudan," said Hailemariam. "And I think the heads of state will also deliberate on this issue, and it is directly given to them."

African diplomats close to the talks say even with the persuasion of influential regional leaders like Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, it might be difficult to find a satisfactory compromise.  A southern Sudanese diplomat says that any concessions on Abyei would be tantamount to "political suicide" for President Salva Kir.

But other experts say compromise is the only option.  Kenya's George Saitoti says the summit is the last best chance to save the referendum.

"The good thing is this summit will have good attendance at high level, and issues that appear to be difficult may very well be solved in the course of the deliberations for the summit," he said. "The key thing, Abyei should not be the obstacle to holding the referendum.  I think some understanding could very well evolve on that."

Kenya called the summit last month as head of the IGAD subcommittee on Sudan.  But the meeting was postponed and moved from Nairobi to Addis Ababa after the International Criminal Court asked Kenya to arrest President Bashir.  The ICC wants to try the Sudanese leader on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the country's western Darfur region.

Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, therefore it is under no obligation to arrest Mr. Bashir.   

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