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Abyei: Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part I)

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Abyei: Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part I)

Posted by Enough Team on September 13, 2010

Abyei: Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part I)

Abyei’s dream deferred

Those who are concerned about the future of the tortured populations within the state of Sudan are by now well aware that January 9, 2011 is D-Day, Decision Day, in South Sudan. It is on that momentous day that southern Sudanese will finally have the opportunity to choose to remain a constituent component of the Sudanese state or to launch out on a new course as the world’s newest sovereign state. Conversely, relatively few people fully understand that there is another D-Day in Sudan on January 9, 2011. On that day the people of Abyei, a cauldron of conflict on the ‘border’ between North and South Sudan, are scheduled to vote in their own referendum on whether to remain in the North or return to the South from which they were moved by the British in 1905. A referendum was promised to the people of Abyei in 1972 as part of a previous peace deal but was never held.

It is my view that if Sudan’s President Omar Bashir has his way, there will be no free and fair referendum in Abyei on January 9, 2011. And inasmuch as President Bashir has gotten his way on Abyei, both well before and ever since the signing of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, you can be sure he will pull out all the stops necessary to get his way this coming January. If the South’s referendum actually occurs in a reasonably free and fair manner, the events of January 9, 2011 will be seen as a major success, regardless of what happens to the referendum in Abyei. However, most who know Abyei would take seriously the warnings inherent in Langston Hughes’ pertinent poem ‘A Dream Deferred:’ 

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In January 2008, Enough strategy asserted: “If the political crisis regarding Abyei is addressed, there is potential for peace in the entire country. If it is mishandled, it dramatically increases the possibility that Sudan’s current conflicts – from Darfur to the South to the East – will explode over the coming years into a national war with regional implications and historically devastating repercussions for its people.” Four months later, most of Abyei was burned to the ground by the Sudanese Armed Forces’ 31st Brigade, its population once again displaced. Since then, the United States and the international community have done little to resolve Abyei’s issues. It should be no surprise that today Abyei is again at the boiling point, yet remains disturbingly invisible.

The Abyei Arbitration Panel

Following Abyei’s destruction, the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, which controls the Khartoum government, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, which controls the Government of South Sudan, or GOSS, could not resolve Abyei’s key issues, particularly its boundaries. In June 2008 the parties agreed that the boundaries issue would be resolved by a final and binding decision of an Abyei Arbitration Tribunal functioning within the framework of the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague. In April 2009 the Tribunal heard the arguments and on July 22 it issued its decision. The ruling was more favorable to Khartoum than many expected. The New York Times said:

“…the ruling gives the north uncontested rights to rich oil deposits like the Heglig oil field, which had previously been placed within Abyei…and gives a symbolic victory to the Ngok Dinka, affirming their claims to the heartland of the fertile region…By tightening the borders of Abyei …the ruling makes it far more likely that the region will vote to join Southern Sudan in a 2011 referendum on its final status, experts said.”

Both the NCP and the SPLM publicly announced that they accepted the tribunal’s decision, as did the United States and the European Union in a joint declaration. As the U.N.’s special representative in Sudan Ashraf Qazi announced, “Both parties have agreed that this question is now settled.”

But this is Sudan, and the NCP is the NCP. In reality, the Tribunal’s decision has never been implemented by Khartoum. In an article written for the November 27, 2009 Sudan Tribune concerning my fieldwork in Abyei, I noted that, while the returning residents of Abyei town were rebuilding and there was a vibrant new market, the NCP was not implementing the tribunal’s decision regarding Abyei’s borders. What was supposed to happen was that the two parties were to collaborate in formally demarcating and clearly marking the Abyei boundaries as determined by the tribunal. In reality, the oversight committee for this task has never been formed; the border demarcation team had been structured by President Bashir personally; and the team leader, an NCP official, reports directly to the president. Further, the 31st Brigade of the Sudan Armed Forces—the very Bashir loyalist Misseriya Brigade that burned Abyei down in May 2008—was threatening the two SPLM engineers on the border demarcation team, who feared for their lives. The net result is that the tribunal decision on the boundaries has not been implemented by Khartoum. Of the 25-30 major demarcation pillars that were planned, only four, all in southern locations, were completed. So much for the idea that Abyei’s boundaries have been agreed to and settled.

Indeed, on July 31, 2010, President Bashir’s Advisor for Security Affairs Salah Gosh simply declared, “The (tribunal’s) ruling did not resolve the dispute” and the parties must ‘’find new solutions.” Although in an August 30 statement Gosh appeared to retract this statement, what is clear is that the NCP’s prevarication has kept an issue that was supposed to have been decided very much up in the air, allowing them to increase their leverage in negotiations with the South, while the international community has stood by and watched.


Roger Winter has authored multiple reports on Sudan’s volatile region of Abyei for the Enough Project. Now, with only four months before the referendum on Abyei is scheduled to be held, he will provide an update on the latest developments on the ground in Abyei in a series of posts for Enough Said.