Yesterday marked the day when the African Union High Level Implementation Panel had hoped the two Sudanese ruling parties would reach an agreement on the status of Abyei.
Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the North-South civil war, residents of this volatile border region should have been given the right to decide whether Abyei should be administered by the northern or southern government through a referendum. That option has been discarded by international mediators who are now working toward an agreement on Abyei’s status through high-level negotiations with the Sudanese and South Sudanese Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir.
For those familiar with the two parties’ eleventh hour-style diplomacy, it is unsurprising that the deadline passed with no political resolution on Abyei. But, alarming violence last month and concerning reports of militarization in and around the area currently, are reminders of how dire the situation is on the ground. On Wednesday, UNMIS’s force commander said, “We have evidence that both sides have militarised Abyei. We have seen all sorts of armed elements that ordinarily are not supposed to be there. The weapons they are holding are higher than the scale that we would expect from the police.”
Sounding almost apologetic, the A.U. panel issued this statement earlier this week, saying consultations with the parties have been ongoing, and that discussions will continue. No further timeline was offered, though:
The Panel will be returning to Sudan in early April to pursue these discussions. Based on consultations with the Parties, the presentation of the proposal will take place at a time to be agreed to with the Presidency.
It remains unclear what specific details the two parties are currently discussing. According to reports late last year, negotiations at that time appeared to center around two options: to transfer Abyei to the South while granting Misseriya a degree of political rights, or to split the Abyei area in half between North and South.
While in Doha yesterday, President Bashir made several remarks that conveyed little sincerity in actually reaching an agreement with his counterpart on Abyei. According to AFP, he said:
We are saying, loud and clear, that there will be no referendum on Abyei without the Misseriya. The Abyei protocol states clearly that the inhabitants of the region, the Ngok Dinka and the other citizens, have the right to participate in the referendum. We refuse this division between first and second class citizens, between settled and nomadic. They are all Sudanese and they have the same rights
Besides being an intentional mis-articulation of what the Abyei protocol provides—that those who reside, not those who migrate into and through Abyei seasonally, have the right to participate in the referendum—Bashir’s remarks are simply provocative given the current security context. His words may have the dangerous effect of further entrenching hardline Misseriya claims to Abyei and exacerbating Ngok Dinka fears that their land will once again be compromised.
With three months left before southern independence, there is little time and too high a human price for international mediators to allow continued delays to a resolution to Abyei. And there is certainly no room for the Sudanese leadership on either side to try to add fuel to the fire.
Photo: Burnt dwelling in Tajalei, Abyei (Tim Freccia)