The contested region of Abyei recently held a “unilateral” referendum to determine whether it will remain part of Sudan or be restored to South Sudan, a move analysts fear could fuel conflict in the region.
The 27-29 October referendum on Abyei followed repeated delays in the vote, which was initially planned for January 2011 as part of a deal under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) designed to bring the civil war in Sudan to an end.
The sticking point has been Khartoum’s insistence that Misseriya pastoralists, many of whom served alongside Sudan's government forces during the civil war, and who spend six months of the year in Abyei’s pastureland, be allowed to take part.
The Ngok Dinka community, Abyei's main permanent residents who largely backed the southern rebels during the war, overwhelmingly voted to join South Sudan in the poll. “The referendum committee has announced the results, and the number of people who have chosen to become part of South Sudan is 99.9 per cent of the vote,” Kenya’s Daily Nation quotes Luka Biong, the spokesman for the Abyei Referendum High Committee, as saying.
Those allowed to vote were the Ngok Dinka and others with permanent abode in Abyei, as recommended by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in 2009, according to a Small Arms Survey (SAS) report.
The Misseriya on 29 October said they would hold a counter-referendum in November, according to Radio Miraya, a Juba-based UN radio station.
Warnings over unilateral action
Before the vote, the UN Security Council had urged Sudan and South Sudan “to refrain from any unilateral action that could heighten tension between the two neighbouring countries or impede a solution regarding the contested, oil-rich border region of Abyei.”
The African Union (AU) in a statement, following a failed visit to Abyei on 26 October said: “[The AU] reiterates its deep concern at the prevailing situation in Abyei, and stresses the need for active and continued African involvement in support of the efforts aimed at addressing the challenges at hand in Abyei. [It] further reiterates that its visit to Abyei is aimed at defusing tension on the ground, including averting any unilateral actions, and creating a conducive environment for the peaceful resolution of the final status of Abyei…
“[It] warns all stakeholders in Abyei to refrain from taking any unilateral action likely to complicate the situation, and, in this regard, calls for maximum restraint.”
Once the referendum had been held the AU described it as “unacceptable and irresponsible”.
The vote, according to Abyei leaders, was spurred by growing frustration at perceived international inaction.
“It was the AU which made the proposal to hold a referendum in October 2013. However what has been the benefit of attending summits and meetings on Abyei, considering that the AU’s own delegation was recently not allowed to enter the area by the Sudanese government?” asks Ngor Arol Garang, a South Sudanese journalist based in Juba writing in the Sudan Tribune (based in Paris).
“The Dinka Ngok did not want to take this path but what can they do since they have been denied the opportunity repeatedly. The Dinka Ngok people were promised an internationally recognized referendum but it has been repeatedly delayed since January 2011. They cannot be expected to fold arms and wait indefinitely,” adds Garang.
Writing in African Arguments, Sudan expert Stephen Arrno says: “What is now considered an “empty” move by the nine Ngok Dinka chieftains to hold a unilateral plebiscite that will get no recognition is in fact a political statement by a community that found itself caught in a cyclical political conundrum.
“Through taking the law in hand via a unilateral referendum, the people of Abyei have reached out to all actors to express their disaffection for a decade of indecisiveness and the suffering, humiliation and displacement - endured twice during the CPA period.”
The referendum, adds Arrno, has also raised “serious questions regarding the complexities in the Abyei protocol, giving no options for the Ngok people but to be at odds with regional and international bodies…
“Indeed the Abyei protocol which is part of the… CPA remains and will currently go [down] in history as the only protocol that has never been implemented since it was signed in 2004. Moreover, the Abyei protocol remains the only open protocol in the CPA that is constantly modified to accommodate serious hiccups arising between the two parties.”
Fears of conflict
The referendum has elicited fears of possible conflict and other adverse effects.
“The Misseriya, increasingly alienated from the GoS [Government of Sudan] and worried about losing crucial grazing land in Abyei -especially given that many of their routes into South Sudan have been blocked in recent years - could clash with the Ngok Dinka over the referendum,” says SAS.
“Even if the initial declaration of the referendum results does not lead to clashes, the upcoming annual migration will present a stiff test to both sides, as a putatively independent Ngok Dinka administration in Abyei will have to decide on how to handle a Misseriya migration amid massive numbers of returnees.”
The AU in a separate statement warned that the poll poses a threat to peace in Abyei and could “trigger an unprecedented escalation on the ground, which could negatively affect the continuing normalization of relations between Sudan and South Sudan, with far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole…
“Such escalation could also put the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) peacekeepers in a very dangerous position,” added the AU.
South Sudan condemns referendum
Besides conflict concerns, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS), which has also condemned the vote, is protecting its economic interests.
“The GRSS believes that no further headway can be made in negotiations with the GoS over the situation in Abyei, and is also aware that siding with the Ngok Dinka over the referendum could destabilize relations with Sudan, lead to a disruption of vital oil flows, and further conflict,” notes SAS.
“By pressing the AU to take the lead over Abyei, the GRSS hopes that the AU might try to force the GoS to accept the referendum results, while preventing the consequences that could result from South Sudan taking such a position.”
South Sudan’s government relies on oil profits to pay its public sector workers and the army.
GoS has also dismissed the poll results.
Regarding the impasse over Abyei, Zacharia Diing Akol, the director of training at the Juba-based Sudd Institute states: “The facts in this case are very clear... Abyei belongs to the Ngok Dinka and these people deserve to voluntarily decide under the international system that recognizes their right to self-determination where they should belong.
“The nomadic Misseriya community, which seasonally comes to Abyei and South Sudan’s neighbouring states for grazing and pasture, has the secondary right recognized by the PCA’s ruling. This, however, does not and should not at all be confused with the idea of permanent abode, which the court has identified as forming the sole basis upon which all other Sudanese citizens can participate in the referendum,” states a 29 October Sudd Institute report.
According to SAS, the “unilateral” referendum “is a high-risk strategy, and, in the best-case scenario, leaves Abyei voting to join a country that did not publicly condone the referendum, and leaving a country that refuses to recognize the referendum’s results.”