How aborted Abyei referendum escalated crisis

How aborted Abyei referendum escalated crisis
President Kiir being briefed by Minister of East African Community Affairs, Deng Alor Kuol. [Photo: PPU]

The status of Abyei is one of the main outstanding issues that Sudan and South Sudan have not resolved since the latter seceded from the former in July 2011.

An oil-rich area, Abyei is being contested by both countries. In the 2004 Abyei Protocol, signed in Naivasha, Kenya, between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and Sudan, Abyei is recognized as a bridge between the north and the south, linking the people of Sudan.

Abyei was a key battleground during the civil war, as it formed a key crossing point for pro-Khartoum Misseriya militias. As a result of the conflict, tens of thousands of inhabitants, mostly Ngok Dinka, were displaced.

Conflict continues to simmer. In May 2022, Francis Mading Deng, an imminent personality and son of the Paramount Chief of Ngok Dinka, proposed setting a temporary arrangement in which members of Misseriya, with which his community contests territorial ownership of the area, would participate until such time is resolved. 

He also hinted at sharing resources, but the Dinka Ngok rejected his proposal, saying it amounted to recognizing the claims of the Misseriya. 

This month, Abyei’s Voice for Security and Stability, under Madam Sophia Albino Deng, resolved after a workshop, that they wanted self-governance.

This idea sent shockwaves in the country, forcing even the president to call for an emergency meeting with Minister of East African Community Affairs, Deng Alor Kuol to chat the way forward on Abyei issue.

In Albino report, the proposal debated and adopted by the workshop aims at creating an interim arrangement to ensure peace, security, stability, and development for Abyei. 

“The core principles of the proposed arrangement include: establishing Abyei of the Ngok Dinka as a self-governing region connected to both countries, with security guarantees by the international community,” reads the report in part.

The report also recommended supporting internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their areas of origin; providing the area with services and development opportunities; empowering women and youth to participate in public life; and fostering peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the Ngok Dinka and the neighboring communities to the north and south. 

“The overriding goal is to create a win-win common ground, with no winner and loser, and from which all stakeholders stand to gain,” its read.  

At the same time, the people of Abyei presented a letter to UNISFA to support self-rule for the people of Abyei. 

The residents were protesting with banners with writings such as “give us self-rule or recognised the 2013 Abyei referendum results.”

However, Kuol Diem Kuol, the chief administrator for Abyei Administrative Area, did not support the proposal that called for self-rule but rather requested UNISFA to support and declare the 2013 referendum results. 

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party in Abyei, Youths Union, and some civil society organizations in the area of Abyei also rejected the proposal for self-rule, saying it is not the best solution to conflict in Abyei.

Where it all starts

In May 26, 2004, the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) signed a protocol on the resolution of Abyei conflict.

According to the protocol, the parties were to form the Abyei Referendum Commission to conduct the Abyei referendum. 

The residents of Abyei would cast a separate ballot during the referendum where southern Sudanese would be making a choice between seceding or remaining in the ‘Old Sudan’. Irrespective of the results of the Southern referendum, the residents of Abyei would decide whether Abyei retain its special administrative status in the north, or two, that Abyei be part of Bahr el Ghazal (South Sudan).

The protocol also established the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) to demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, which constituted the Abyei Area

However, several challenges encountered implementation of this protocol with conflict-related problem in the contested Abyei Area.

On May 21, 2011, for instance, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) launched a coordinated attack on South Sudanese military personnel in the contested region of Abyei. The then Sudanese President General Omar Bashir also unilaterally dissolved the joint North-South Abyei Administration; in addition to being unconstitutional the move served only to further inflames tensions in the region.

Khartoum claimed the assault was in retaliation for the killing of 22 SAF soldiers by South Sudanese military forces in the region. Additionally the non-implementation of Abyei Protocol, the Abyei Borders Commission (ABC) report – and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling – undermined other key aspects of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and set a worrying precedent for future agreements.

As security situation between the two countries intensified in the area, characterised by several confrontation, the UN came up with agenda to deploy neutral army in Abyei in order to protect civilians and further confrontation form Sudan and South Sudan.

The UN Security Council by its resolution 1990 of 27 June 2011, responded to the urgent situation in Abyei area by establishing the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei. The council was concerned by the violence, escalating tensions and population displacement.   

South Sudan formed a high level National committee for Abyei referendum headed by Deng Alor Kuol to conduct the exercise.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit in his meeting with the committee in 2013 once said that Abyei Referendum would bring lasting peace with Sudan.

“Conducting (the) referendum will remove tension and bring lasting peace in the area,” Kiir said 

Meanwhile, there was a republican order No 06/2021 dated May 24, 2021, for the formation of the National committee for final status of Abyei (NCFSA) in which NCFSA was requested in best of their practices to conduct negotiation with Sudan counterpart.

Solving the problem

South Sudan Vice President for Services Cluster Abdelbagi in his remark on Monday in a sideline meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in New York during 77th UN general Assembly called for recognition of 2013 Abyei Referendum.

Some chapters of the report that called for self-rule for people of Abyei stressed need for the people of Abyei to be fully independent but still be in good terms with both countries: Sudan and South Sudan.

“The only viable solution that may offer a common ground is to make Abyei a self-governing state that will remain connected to both countries through arrangement that can be agreed upon,” part of the report read

In 2013, residents in the disputed region of Abyei voted overwhelmingly (99.9%) to join South Sudan, however, African Union termed it as a threat to peace between Sudan and South Sudan.

In a statement dated September 19, 2022 SPLM-IO rejected the proposal that make Abyei protectorate or self-governing state as proposed by prominent politician Francis Mading Deng

“We believe that Abyei destiny cannot be determine by individuals since it is a national issue which requires our collective ideas and views as people of South Sudan” the statement read.

SPLM-IO promised to punish those spotted spreading the allegations that are against the people of Abeyi.

“Individuals or members who have been found propagating against the will of the people of Abyei must be disciplined by the party as per(IO) code of conduct, internal regulations among others” the letter stated

“We hope that the African Union High Commission headed by former South African President would come out with concrete solution to the status of Abyei” it added.

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