Academy award-winning actor George Clooney has lent some star power to the Sudan issue less that three months before the January referendum on independence for the country’s south.
Clooney returned earlier this week from a trip to Sudan. While there he travelled to the north, the western province of Darfur, as well as remote-conflict-prone areas of southern Sudan, accompanied by activist, author, and former Clinton Administration National Security Council staffer John Prendergast,and NBC reporter Ann Curry. They visited a mass grave and the ruins of the town of Abyei, which was largely burned to the ground in 2008. Abyei and the oil-rich surrounding region by the same name straddle the border between north and south.
On Tuesday, they briefed President Barack Obama at the White House and later spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations—a leading US think tank. They highlighted some of the issues that they believe need to be addressed in the coming days for the referendum to take place as scheduled, including citizenship rights, north-south boundaries, and the rules for a separate referendum for in Abyei. Both north and south claim Abyei, whose leaders accuse the government in Khartoum of trying to destabilize the region.
Some observers say that Khartoum is stalling the process and could even be planning to postpone the elections. Recent statements by President Omar al-Bashir—who is currently on a campaign tour to promote unity—have raised eyebrows among Sudan watchers.
In the south, they met with regional leaders including President Salva Kiir. They say they got the sense that if the referendum doesn’t take place as planned, the southern leadership will "either declare independence or carry out their own referendum."
“The South without Abeyei means war”
Peace activists say the planned January vote is one of a number of issues that need attention. Some view the volatile Abeyei region as the source of the next conflict. Clooney described President Kiir as adamant about holding the Abyei referendum as scheduled on January 9th, the same day as the vote for southern independence. As part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the two decade civil war, voters in Abyei are to decide whether to remain a part of Sudan or whether to join the south, should southerners vote for independence.
“’South Sudan without Abeyei means war,’ “ Clooney said President Kiir told them. John Prendergast argued that the Khartoum government was “cynically using Abyei as a bargaining chip.”
The team met with Dinka leaders in the region who told them that if the referendum is not held on time “they will declare independence at the same time as the South”.
The Dinka, who are indigenous to the area, are pitted against the northern-based nomads, the Messiriya , who take their cattle each year to southern pastures to graze.
Following a ruling of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2009, they have been working to demarcate the border of the nine Dinka Ngok chiefdoms. But recent tensions have threatened to derail any peace prospects.
Clooney says that the biggest problem in the area is oil. “Before oil was discovered there was peace in that area.” Both the north and the south want control of Abyei and its oil. The Dinka say if they go to war, they could burn the oil fields.
Prendergast said that given the short time left before the January poll, there is a sense of urgency about Sudan. He compared it to a "ticking time bomb," a phrase also attributed to State Deparment officials.
"Obviously what this is going to require is diplomacy,” Clooney said, “Robust, intricate, complicated diplomacy..” On Tuesday he spoke with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and met with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the committee’s Ranking Member, asking them to take action on Sudan before “it’s too late.”
US mediated talks between north and south over Abyei broke down earlier this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Leaders from both sides disagreed over who in Abyei should be eligible to vote in the referendum. The North insists on giving voting rights to the nomadic Messirya Arabs, who would likely vote to remain with the north.