Two years after Sudan split, the important central border region of Abyei remains contested between the governments and communities of a divided Sudan and a newly independent South Sudan. Home to the nine chiefdoms of the Ngok Dinka people and an important thoroughfare to grazing lands for the cattle of the nomadic Misseriya tribe, Abyei is in the news again as a long-promised referendum looms against a background of broken promises and failed agreements.
The people of Abyei are, once again, facing an immediate risk for enduring violence and displacement due to repeated inaction to establish political and economic stability. As the UN General Assembly convenes this month, the UN Security Council along with government of Sudan and the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) have the ability to address the stalemate situation and prevent another humanitarian crisis from delaying the advancement of peace in the region.
The relationship between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya is long and complex, and Sudan's half a century of civil wars have pulled the communities in opposite directions. Boundaries that were once tribally administered have now given way to sovereign borders, which has hardened positions and raised the stakes for what will come next. Abyei is among the last unresolved issues from the countries' split. The original 2005 peace agreement which culminated in South Sudan's independence also granted the Ngok Dinka and other residents of Abyei a referendum to choose whether to be administered as part of Sudan or South Sudan. Eight years later, there has been remarkably little progress on resolving Abyei, let alone the referendum. Instead Abyei has suffered two military invasions by Sudan's army, displacing roughly 100,000 Ngok Dinka civilians each time, and most recently the assassination of the Ngok Dinka paramount chief by a Misseriya tribesman. The region has seen the establishment of an Ethiopian-staffed UN peacekeeping mission to maintain a ceasefire and repeated attempts to build local governing administrations with limited success.
National politics have conspired to make victims of the people and communities of Abyei. The stalemate is driven by a consistent refusal of the Government of Sudan to implement multiple agreements and commitments, which would allow the referendum to proceed as originally intended, an inaction motivated primarily out of fear that the Ngok Dinka will vote to join South Sudan. Further, the Sudanese government has manipulated and mobilized the Misseriya to fight against the Ngok Dinka, impeding the opportunity for local solutions or political compromise. Although Sudan has successfully used Misseriya foot soldiers to grab land in Abyei, the Misseriya's goal is not Abyei, per se, but access to grazing lands in Abyei and beyond in South Sudan.
The international community has played an active role in trying to broker peace. Following the Sudan government's initial refusal to implement the 2005 Abyei Protocol or accept the "final and binding" Abyei Boundary Commission report, the parties sent the case in 2008 to the International Court of Arbitration. The Court ruling reduced the land in question, but upheld the core tenets of the original agreement. Most recently, last year the African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) submitted a proposal calling for the referendum to be held in October. Importantly, the proposal protects the grazing rights of the Misseriya regardless of the outcome of the referendum, and rightly focuses on restoring and building good civil, political, social and economic relations between the two communities, thereby enhancing the prospects of peace between and in Sudan and South Sudan.
The African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) has repeatedly endorsed the AUHIP proposal, yet the Government of Sudan continues to drag its feet. After years of frustration, disappointment and displacement, the Ngok Dinka community has begun self-mobilizing to hold the referendum next month, as per the AUHIP proposal timeline. Yet with both the Government of Sudan and the Misseriya community warning against a unilateral Ngok Dinka referendum, the situation could quickly escalate and again lead to violence in this tense border area.
The dirty politics around Abyei has come at the expense of the peoples of the area, who continue to suffer under this stalemate. Peace in the area will benefit both communities and both countries far more than continued military and political strife. While the AUHIP proposal is unlikely to satisfy everyone, it is fair and it can begin to establish the necessary environment that allows both communities, over time, to recover, reconcile and flourish. The African Union, with the support of the UN Security Council, must continue to actively facilitate positive change in Abyei so that the obstacles to their community's recovery and economic development are removed.
As the UN General Assembly meets later this month, and again in Addis Ababa in October, members of the UN Security Council should support the AUHIP proposal, and use these meetings to encourage members of the AUPSC to stipulate a specific timeline for implementation by Sudan and South Sudan of the various components of the AUHIP proposal, or risk forwarding the proposal to the United Nations Security Council for endorsement and implementation under Chapter VII of its Charter.
The voices of the people of Abyei must be heard and respected so progress on peace can move forward. Too often those with the most at stake are not allowed at the negotiation table. The referendum is the agreed upon opportunity for the people of Abyei to determine their future, and it will empower them to refocus their work towards healing their community and cultivating economic development. The referendum is not the end, but is part of an ongoing peace process that requires diligence and accountability. The people of Abyei have patiently and painfully waited long enough. It's time to let them vote.