The story is all-too-familiar. A Sudanese town is burnt to the ground. Schools and hospitals are targeted and destroyed. Hundreds of civilians are murdered by tribal militia and 50,000 more are driven from their homes.
No, this isn't a page taken from Sudan's distant, bloody past. It's from May 2008, when ethnic tensions erupted in Abyei, a contested area situated on the nation's critical north-south religious and ethnic divide. Two-and-a-half-years later, pressures are mounting again, posing grave dangers for the successful completion of the north-south peace agreement and thus for the people of Sudan at large and for the surrounding region, unless the U.S. and its allies act decisively now.
In 2005, the U.S. played the key role in brokering Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). This accord ended more than 20 years of civil war which left two million southern Sudanese dead and four million displaced. It was triggered substantially by the resistance of the South's Christian and animist population to the militant attempts by the government in the North to impose its radicalized version of Islam.
The religious component of the conflict was a key finding in 1999 by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Moreover, the Commission named Sudan the world's worst violator of religious freedom during the war. As USCIRF commissioners, we maintain that if war and tyranny are to be averted, the peace agreement must be implemented fully.
The agreement, which is set to expire next year, was designed to establish democracy, allocate oil revenues, and ensure governing autonomy that would allow religious freedom, for the besieged southern Sudan. It also included the Abyei Protocol, which places the disputed area in northern Sudan, while having the North and South administer it jointly for the duration of the agreement. The CPA is meant to culminate with two related referenda mandated for January 9, 2011. The first referendum is on self-determination for the southern Sudanese; the second concerns whether Abyei remains in the North or becomes part of South Sudan.
Today the entire CPA process and the prospects for peace in Sudan stand on the edge of a precipice. With less than two months before the scheduled voting , the North's National Congress Party (NCP) and South's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) have failed to agree on who should constitute the electorate in Abyei's referendum. The NCP insists that the pro-Northern, nomadic Misseriya, who travel through and utilize Abyei to graze their cattle, are eligible, while the SPLM wants voting reserved for the indigenous Ngok Dinka community and other established residents.
In recent months, negotiations over this issue have stalled. In early October, an African Union meeting in Ethiopia, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, failed to break the stalemate. A second round of talks was postponed for lack of positive momentum.
Since the two sides can't agree on residency, an Abyei Referendum Commission charged with overseeing the vote has yet to be formed.
With an agreement on Abyei nowhere in sight, time is running out in the effort to prevent a conflict that could spark another ruinous North-South war that is centered on religious freedom as much as control over oil and other resources. Heated rhetoric and military incursions on both sides have escalated tensions. Both the NCP and the SPLM are reportedly deploying troops near Abyei and along the North-South border. Misseriya leaders threaten to take up arms if denied a chance to vote. The South has repeatedly said it will not compromise on Abyei and SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum has complained that President Bashir's Khartoum government is forcing it to pay a "ransom" for Abyei.
To end this impasse and avoid armed conflict, the United States must take action. It must embrace its responsibilities as a guarantor of the CPA and as the author of the Abyei Protocol. To that end, the Obama Administration should assert itself. It should immediately dispatch a senior diplomat to Sudan who will command the respect of North and South alike to help resolve the dispute over Abyei residency and voting eligibility, so the Abyei Referendum Commission can spring to life and voting can begin.
The Administration, along with the international community, must reinforce the original and true meaning of the Abyei Protocol and its commitments which the United States helped create. Continued delay by Khartoum and repeated efforts at re-negotiation of the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement provisions can only lead to renewed war. Holding both parties to the agreements they made can avert it.
President Bashir must stop the gamesmanship. No more do-overs. The time to act is now.