Sudan referendum: Leaders meet to resolve problems in Abyei

The Sudan referendum could be derailed if issues in the border region Abyei are not addressed before the January vote.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Sudan's Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha (right) addresses a press conference at Councils of Ministers in Khartoum on Oct. 4, 2010. A referendum on whether Sudan's disputed Abyei region should join the country's north or south will not go ahead unless outstanding issues are settled first in talks, Taha said on Monday.

Four days into the Abyei talks taking place in Addis Ababa, little information on the progress of negotiations has leaked – except perhaps that the parties have not yet arrived at a satisfactory agreement. Involved in the talks are representatives from the two ruling Sudanese parties, the US, and two Sudanese communities who arguably have the most at stake – the nomadic Misseriya, who seasonally migrate into the Abyei area for grazing lands and water, and the Ngok Dinka, who are considered the legal residents of Abyei. The talks are revolving around the issues that the CPA did not specify – namely the question of who should be eligible to vote in the contentious region’s referendum – and will likely attempt to address the post-referendum concerns of the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka, whose buy-in is critical to holding a peaceful and credible vote.

Public remarks from the Obama administration have largely been close-lipped, with hints that the negotiations have been challenging. US State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley dropped euphemistic adjectives to characterize the proceedings, calling the talks “spirited” and “frank” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that “it is difficult to deal with Khartoum.”

On the NCP side, the Sudanese vice president and principal negotiator for the ruling party, Ali Osman Taha, came out on Tuesday to say that if the parties did not reach an agreement, there would “be no room for a referendum in Abyei.” Taha makes a fairly obvious point, but US diplomats should be wary of any sort of rhetoric that hints at conditioning the Abyei referendum on any agreement besides necessary consensus on voter eligibility; after all, the NCP-signed CPA already guarantees the vote. Meanwhile, other NCP officials have been more inflammatory in their remarks. According to Sudanese papers Al-Akhbar and Al-Rai Al-Aam, both the defense minister and a presidential advisor publicly pledged in separate venues to stand up for the rights of the Misseriya to vote in the referendum. This sort of rhetoric is undoubtedly aimed at pleasing the NCP’s Misseriya constituency, but nevertheless has the negative effect of raising the expectations of the nomadic community; the US administration should encourage the NCP to rein their officials in.

Misseriya representatives, in the mean time, have been a mixed bag. According to Khartoum paper Al-Watan Daily, Misseriya leader Al-Sadiq Babo Nimir (who recently threatened to take up arms if the Misseriya were excluded from the vote) said the meeting in Addis has been difficult and that his tribe is rejecting the U.S. approach to resolving the issue. Another Misseriya leader, Mohamed Khatir Jumma, called on the two parties to leave the negotiating to the Misseriya and the Dinka, reported Al-Ahram Al-Youm.

Sudanese paper Al-Sahafa reported yesterday that a “breakthrough” was achieved on “some political issues”—stay tuned for more news on that front.

Amanda Hsiao blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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