The fate of the contested Abyei region that lies between Sudan and South Sudan is one of the most important issues left unresolved since South Sudan became an independent state in 2011. The region is home to the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya, nomadic Arab herders, who migrate across the Abyei region twice a year. The two groups have lived in mutual interdependence, but a long history of unfulfilled promises for self-determination and the politicization of Abyei’s final status has raised tensions. In 2008 and 2011, Sudanese army attacks left towns burned to the ground, and resulted in the displacement of 120,000 people.
Frustrated Ngok Dinka residents in Abyei held a unilateral referendum and announced the results on Thursday. Over 99 percent of the Ngok Dinka who voted on the ballot expressed a desire to transfer the Abyei territory from Sudan’s sovereignty to South Sudanese control. The Misseriya tribe has also vowed to hold their own referendum to voice their desire to stay with Sudan.
A new Enough Project report, "What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" places this vote in a historical and political context and calls for the U.S. and the African Union to take immediate action to help determine Abyei’s final status. The report authors call on the African Union, or AU, Peace and Security Council to carry out its intended visit to the region, report on key findings, outline a clear timeline for a credible and internationally-sanctioned vote as called for in the African Union’s proposal, and hold Sudan to its existing wealth-sharing promises for Abyei. The Abyei region is a potential tinderbox, and the current uneasy status quo is unlikely to last for the long-term. The international community should use the AU trip and the window of opportunity created by the successful deployment of the United Nations Interim Security Force, or UNISFA, predominantly staffed by Ethiopian soldiers, to push for a resolution.
Last year, former South African President Thabo Mbeki put forward a proposal with October 2013 as a target for the area’s self-determination referendum. The AU supported the plan and both Sudan and South Sudan agreed to the vote in principle, but have not been able to agree on administrative arrangements and voter eligibility. Current political realities in Khartoum and Juba make it unlikely that the governments will be able to reach an agreement. Futhermore, Sudan nor South Sudan recognize the validity of the Ngok Dinka community's vote. The report authors explain that the Ngok Dinka’s unsanctioned vote is an expression of collective will and should be seen as a precursor to an internationally-recognized referendum for the disputed area.
The Mbeki plan should be revived within the AU, and interested stakeholders, including the United States, through its Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, and the European Union, through its Envoy to the Horn of Africa, must make building a consensus around the Mbeki proposal a priority. The task now rests with the AU to take leadership and, after forty years, move to resolve this festering situation.
Photo: A Ngok Dinka woman holds a cross in Abyei town. (Timothy May/Enough Project)