Is Abyei becoming another Kashmir in Sudan?

By Deng Riek Khoryoam, South Sudan

February 8, 2011 (SSNA) — The people of Southern Sudan have fought the last battle through the ballot and have finally achieved their long -awaited and hard-won freedom following the landslide victory for separation. What remains now is just formality; in that the remaining period before July (declaration of independence) will be to sort out the post-referendum issues like citizenship, currency, water, border, oil and etc. It’s worth mentioning that the recent referendum on self-determination for the people of South Sudan was supposed to have been conducted simultaneously with that of Abyei, to enable them decide their future status – either to remain as part of the North or be part of South, as per “the terms of Abyei protocol signed on May 26 2004 in Naivasha, Kenya”.

This was promised as part of the comprehensive peace agreement, the CPA, which gives the citizens of this region an inalienable right to determine their destiny in line with the CPA. But due to the intransigence on the side of one CPA partner (NCP) and the inertia of the other partner (SPLM) to negotiate with cool head and avoid endless futile war of words, this has been made practically impossible to happen concomitantly with the one conducted in January, 2011, in which the people have chosen separation over the other choice. Since 2005, the two peace partners have been in a strained relationship characterized by mistrust; as they’ve always engaged themselves in a seemingly endless blame-game and political bickering, which is against the spirit of the CPA.

It’s now crystal clear that the Abyei referendum was intentionally delayed due to vested interests despite the international arbitration on the ‘hotly contested region’ which was adjudicated by the permanent court of arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. Both parties vowed to respect and abide by the court ruling but what we are seeing now, after the court’s ruling is a lack of commitment to implement it in good faith. The question is: Is Abyei becoming another Kashmir in Sudan? Yes, one may not be wrong to conclude that the oil-rich region of Abyei is almost becoming like Kashmir (God forbid!) given the current political impasse. Kashir is a northwestern sub-continent of India, ‘hotly contested’ just like Abyei, as it’s claimed by both India and Pakistan, with some areas being claimed by China.

The parties to the comprehensive peace agreement are deadlocked over the eligibility of voters, who should vote and who should not as per the terms of the protocol. There have been several attempts by the African Union high level implementation panel for Sudan chaired by the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki but to our dismay, all in fiasco; as they (talks) have failed to yield any substantial fruits, since the two partners were not able to reach a consensus or at least some kind of middle-ground. It’s noteworthy that there are a lot of ambiguities in the Abyei protocol that need to be demystified if we are to break the current political impasse and reduce the tension in this war-torn region. But before I explain where or what the ambiguities are, I would like to quote a very strong statement by state parties, presumably, Sudan included at the signing of International covenant on civil and political rights, which came into force on 23th March 1976.

Part one, article 1 of the covenant say “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

Given the above strongly worded statement, one may want to ask this fundamental question: on what basis are the people of Abyei denied the right to self-determination, when it’s even enshrined in the current interim constitutions of the Sudan? Let me now bring your attention to what I alluded to above as having a lot of ambiguities in the “Abyei protocol” signed on May 26th 2004 in Naivasha, Kenya, by the two parties and to which they fully committed themselves to implement its provisions in both letter and spirit in front of the whole world.

6. Residents of the Area:

6.1“The residents of Abyei Area shall be:

(a) The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area;

(b) The criteria of residence shall be worked out by the Abyei Referendum Commission”.

Do you realize where the problem lies now? It’s (a) which says the residents of Abyei area shall be “members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area”. But who are these “other Sudanese residing in the area”? Of course common sense has it that they are none other than the so-called “Misseriya” mentioned indirectly because they are the only “other Sudanese” residing in the area with Dinka Ngok. That is my own interpretation and understanding of this legal document, I could be wrong but please read it carefully! Article 6.2 also goes further and said “Residents of Abyei shall be citizens of both Western Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal with representation in the legislatures of both States as determined by the National Electoral Commission” The territory is defined as nine Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan state in 1905. This ambiguous definition of the “citizens” being of both Western Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal, instead of just defining it as “Nine Dinka chiefdoms” is the bone of contention coupled with other issues. And that is where the Misseriya claim is, because you cannot assert that the Misseriya are not eligible to vote when it’s stipulated in the agreement; which gives them not only the grazing rights but also voting rights, and you can go to court but they will use the above quotes to argue and they will have a case!

So in my opinion, the only way out of this stalemate is to work out the criteria of residence based on the present realities on the ground, free from hardliner’s influence. The two partners should immediately form an independent commission, with the help of the AU HLIP on Sudan to work out all this before its too late. We don’t want the same pitfall situation that happened in Kashmir to happen to Abyei, neither do we want to see Abyei conducting its own referendum excluding other parameters of power in the Sudan. Let the citizens of Abyei, that is Dinka Ngok and Misseriya, sit down and find a suitable local solution to the problem far from the hardliner’s positions, anything less or more than this will only complicate things. This is also built on the premise that there is never internationally prescribed solution to any problem; it all depends on the context and the willingness of the aggrieved parties to find a lasting and amicable solution. We don’t want to see Abyei into flames again after the incident that happened in May 2008, in which many lost their lives, including my childhood friend who was killed in action on the side of SPLA.

The author lives in South Sudan and he is reachable at [email protected]

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