Tensions are rising over the contentious Abyei region as the two Sudanese ruling parties remain deadlocked over who will be eligible to vote in the region’s upcoming referendum in January. Observers warn of a return to conflict over the volatile oil-rich area if an agreement is not reached and a referendum does not take place.
On Sunday, Chief Administrator of Abyei Deng Arop Kuol began warning of large numbers of Misseriya settling in the region. According to Arop, members of this nomadic community plan to settle 25,000 families in 20 locations just north of Abyei, significantly increasing the number of Misseriya in the contested area. “We believe it is something organized,” he said.
Sudan’s ruling NCP and its southern counterpart the SPLM have differing ideas of who is eligible to cast a ballot in Abyei’s referendum, an important vote that will give Abyei residents the opportunity to decide whether the region will be a part of North or South Sudan, if secession takes place. The SPLM believes that the Ngok Dinka—who under law are recognized as Abyei residents—and individuals with long-term residence in the region should be granted the vote. The NCP insist that the Misseriya, a nomadic community that seasonally migrates through Abyei for grazing land and water and has historically been aligned with the ruling party, should also have the right to vote. Misseriya votes will in all likelihood favor staying with North Sudan.
In the midst of stalled talks and growing anxiety among aggrieved residents who demanded progress on the referendum process last month, the mass Misseriya settlement is fueling speculation over what the nomadic community and the NCP are planning. Arop believes that the settlements are aimed at changing the demographic make-up of Abyei, signaling early preparations for manipulation in the vote. "The aim is … at the very least to influence the referendum with large numbers or, if they are told they don’t have the right to vote, then they will derail the referendum," he said.
Voter eligibility is determined by the Abyei Referendum Commission, whose formation has been delayed because the two parties are deadlocked over who the chairman of the commission should be. The chairman will have tremendous influence over the voter eligibility question. Given the delays, it remains to be seen if the referendum can logistically be held on time.
In the meantime, rhetoric between the two parties signals deteriorating relations between the two parties, at least over Abyei. Over the weekend, Presidential Advisor Salah Gosh dismissed the ruling by a court in The Hague that determined Abyei’s borders last summer, one that both NCP and SPLM had agreed to accept. "The decision of the international court did not solve this problem and did not satisfy the needs of the two partners," Gosh said. "The two partners must find new solutions."
There are also reports that the Ngok Dinka community are seeking the assistance of the U.N. Security Council in arbitrating the many issues still unresolved for the region, including implementing the Hague court’s decision on the border.
Photo: A woman walks through burned buildings in Abyei town, 2008 (AP)