Abyei’s Sensitive Referendum

Abyei residents hopeful that normalcy will return. They yearn for the attention of the Governments of South Sudan, Government of Sudan and the International Community.

Abyei residents hopeful that normalcy will return. They yearn for the attention of the Governments of South Sudan, Government of Sudan and the International Community.

On 26th October 2006, the women of Abyei rose up to song and dance running from one corner of Abyei to another. They carried twigs and sang their hearts out.  The whole town was alive as they anticipated a visit by the Africa Union Commission (AUC).  By 12.00 hours it became apparent that the AUC had cancelled their visit to Abyei, this being the third cancellation. The people of Abyei felt sad and held a peaceful demonstration around their town and converged at the United Nations Camp where they sang and prayed. They had carried twigs of peace and after their function they dispersed and left for their homes. The visit by the AUC would have been very important to the people of Abyei, even if the AUC would not be in a position to state its position clearly on the issue of the referendum because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved. One woman was later heard saying “we know how difficult it is for the AUC but they should have come. We are not sure on whether or not they were denied the visa. But we need to be visited and listened to.” Another said “all we need is peace. I need to construct a house that will stay. I am tired of always starting. I need a life.”

Abyei referendum was due this month. The leaders sensing little support wrote to the AU asking for support to conduct it at a later date. This referendum has drawn various opinions from various quarters. Riak Machar the former Vice President was quoted in the Sudan Tribune to have said that South Sudan should stick to the initial proposal by the African Union (AU) for the people of Abyei to exercise their self-determination referendum this month. His statement came in response a  joint communique on Tuesday 22nd October 2013 in Juba, by South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his Sudanese counter-part, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, on their commitment to pursue the formation of a joint administration for Abyei inclusive of Dinka Ngok and Misseriya, prior to the conduct of referendum in the area. Following this communique the Government of South Sudan, on Wednesday 23rd October 2013, issued a statement broadcast on the state-run TV, warning that the government will not be part of a unilateral conduct of referendum by Dinka Ngok in Abyei.

Resolving the final status of Abyei still remains a major issue between Sudan and South Sudan after the latter broke away from the former in July 2011, leaving several unresolved post-secession issues. Fearing a negative impact on the relations between Khartoum and Juba of an unilateral vote and possible tensions between the two communities of Dinka Ngok and Misseriya in Abyei, the UN Security Council and the United States urged to both parties to refrain from actions that can increase tension in the disputed area. The US State Department, also welcomed the outcome of Bashir-Kiir summit in Juba, warned the Dinka Ngok against unilateral action, saying it could jeopardize peace between the two countries.

Last year, the AU mediation team proposed holding a referendum in Abyei this month, but stated that only those residing permanently in the area were to be allowed to vote in the plebiscite and decide whether they want to join Sudan or South Sudan. The Sudanese government, however, rejected the AU proposal aimed at breaking the deadlock over Abyei referendum saying it ignored that the eligibility of the Misseriya. Machar criticised the two governments of South Sudan and Sudan for going back to the outdated proposal of a joint administration between Dinka Ngok and Misseriya tribes, saying this old idea has already been superseded after the killing of the Dinka Ngok chief, Kuol Deng Majok by the Misseriya in May 2013, as well as by the AU proposal presented by President Thabo Mbeki, which urged for the conduct of the referendum in October. He further explained that in accordance with the ruling by the court of arbitration in The Hague, a specific area of Abyei was demarcated for the nine Dinka Ngok chiefdoms, excluding the Misseriya. Machar who led the SPLM delegation to The Hague court in July 2009 on Abyei file pointed out that any Misseriya member who continued to live in Abyei after the court ruling should be considered a mere trader who no longer have the right to participate in the Dinka Ngok referendum. He said as a result of the court ruling, a piece of Abyei land was already cut out to the side of the Misseriya tribe and that was what they should have gotten from Abyei, leaving the Dinka Ngok alone to conduct the referendum.
Machar urged SPLM, not to let down the people of Abyei who have empowered and entrusted the party to negotiate on their behalf since the timen of the CPA. A unilateral referendum by the people of Abyei in their territory per the court ruling need to be conducted and respected as the will of the people, he said. He encouraged that the Dinka Ngok to go ahead with the conduct of the unilateral referendum in the next few days and the result to be declared by 31 October 2013. The former vice-president also commended the presence of the UNISFA forces on the ground in Abyei to ensure the security of the voters.

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