Less than a week after accepting and agreeing to begin immediately implementing a legal ruling on the boundaries of Abyei, northern and southern Sudanese leaders have begun trading accusations over control of the re-zoned oilfields and voting rights in the upcoming referendum over Abyei’s future. Both the North and the South had promised to respect the ruling no matter the outcome. The United Nations, the United States, and other members of the international community had praised the ruling as a step forward for the parties.
The ruling, issued by a tribunal at The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, re-drew the boundaries of the oil-rich and contested region of Abyei. Because of this change, two key oilfields, Heglig and Bamboo, now falling within the boundaries of Southern Kordofan state in northern Sudan. According to the South’s state-owned newspaper, the Sudan Vision, as a result of the ruling, the northern government in Khartoum is no longer obligated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to pay a proportion of Heglig’s oil revenues to the South. The South’s ruling SPLM party responded with accusations that the North had prematurely claimed the oilfield because the drill site is still involved in a separate border dispute over the entire boundary between northern and southern Sudan. Taban Deng Gai, governor of the South’s Unity state, told Reuters that officials have documents proving that Heglig is part of Unity state, not Southern Kordofan. He said that the SPLM plans to present its case to a separate commission working to demarcate Sudan’s North-South border.
The dispute over the Abyei boundaries is important because the residents of the area will hold a referendum on whether to join the North or the South in January 2011; a separate referendum will determine the fate of southern Sudan, whose people will be voting on whether to remain unified with northern Sudan or to secede as a new state. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has stated that all Abyei residents will have the right to vote in the referendum. The SPLM saw President Bashir’s comments as an invitation for Arab Misseriya nomads to register as settled Abyei residents in order to influence the vote.
Didiri Mohamed Ahmed, the North’s main official on Abyei, said the SPLM’s statements on Heglig and the referendum left him with “misgivings” about their motives. He also told Reuters: “We have heard them make statements that have raised concerns about their commitment to the ruling.”
This renewed back-and-forth between the North and South is a worrisome sign of early backsliding on the parties’ clear pledges to support last week’s crucial ruling on Abyei.