It looks like a simple enough issue: whether a pocket of land in the middle of Sudan is part of the north or the south. But the Abyei question is key to lasting peace in the country.
The last time the area’s residents were denied the right - enshrined in a 1972 peace accord - to make the choice themselves, the backlash helped push the country back into civil war.
Now, some three decades later, and five years after a new peace accord was signed, they are finally set to hold a referendum on their political future.
There is much to be done before the vote, scheduled for 9 January 2011 (the same day Southern Sudan votes on secession from the north) can take place.
And tension is running high. On 5 July, some 3,000 Abyei residents demonstrated to demand the formation of the commission that will oversee the referendum and on demarcating the area’s borders, as defined by an international court in July 2009.
The same day, five people died in clashes that followed an alleged attack by gunmen from the Misseriya community, which is worried about access to pasture in Abyei and further south.
Here is some key information about Abyei’s referendum:
Although the exact wording of the referendum question has yet to be defined, voters will be asked to decide whether to retain Abyei’s special administrative status in the north or become part of Southern Sudan, irrespective of the outcome of the south’s own referendum on secession. The result of the referendum will be determined by a simple majority of votes cast.
This special status was defined by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) that ended the last phase of civil war. Scheduled to last until July 2011, it grants Abyei residents joint citizenship of two of Sudan’s regional states, one in the north, the other in the south. It also calls for the area to be governed by an Executive Council, with members appointed by the joint national presidency until an election is held. Abyei residents are still waiting to cast their votes in such an election.
With the two simultaneous referendums, there are four possible outcomes for Abyei’s future:
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Under the CPA and the Abyei Referendum Act, members of an Abyei Area Referendum Commission were supposed to be appointed as soon as the Act came into force, which happened when President Omar El Basher signed it on 31 December 2009. As of the time of writing (14 July), the commission had not been established. Neither had a promised court, where any complaints about the referendum could be raised.
The commission’s main duties are to conduct civic education (in an area with little mass media); prepare the voters’ register; determine residency criteria (see below); set out the referendum’s rules of procedure, including the role of observers; and organize the ballot together with the Abyei Area Administration, the Khartoum government and the government of Southern Sudan, under international observation.
Eligibility is still a grey area. Under the referendum Act and the CPA protocol on Abyei, eligible voters include residents of Abyei area, namely “members of the Ngok Dinka community” and “other Sudanese residing in Abyei Area in accordance with the criteria of residency, as may be determined by the Commission”.
But since the commission has not been established, these crucial criteria remain to be determined.
A year after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) defined Abyei’s border there has been little progress in its demarcation.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the former rebel movement now in power in Southern Sudan, has complained that its members of a joint demarcation team feel threatened by armed militia elements, which the SPLM claims are sponsored by Khartoum.
Any group wishing to delay or sabotage the referendum might try to make a case that demarcation is a prerequisite to the vote.
Abyei’s chief administrator has accused Misseriya groups of moving into the area, displacing Ngok Dinka residents.
Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN
|Voters will be asked to decide whether to retain Abyei’s special administrative status in the north or become part of Southern Sudan (file photo)|
The right of the Misseriya to seasonally graze their cattle in Abyei, regardless of the referendum’s result, was enshrined in the Abyei Protocol and reaffirmed in the 2009 border ruling. But the failure to explain this clearly to people on the ground has led to fears that these rights, essential to the survival of the pastoralists, might be lost if Abyei goes to the south, resulting in the kind of tension that contributed to the recent violence.
Under the CPA, troops from north and south Sudan - enemies in the civil war - were supposed to team up in Joint Integrated Units (JIUs). Across the country’s borderlands, but particularly in Abyei, the JIU initiative has met with many problems.
In May 2008, clashes between the two JIU contingents displaced tens of thousands of people from the town of Abyei, which suffered extensive damage.
JIUs are supposed to be disbanded when the CPA interim period expires in July 2011 but details of what will happen to the troops and about how security will be provided in Abyei have yet to be worked out.