US official: Sudan's Abyei region unlikely to hold self-determination vote

Local journalists found greatly polarized opinions among Abyei's Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities, a window into the tension surrounding next month's Abyei vote and a larger referendum on Sudanese unity.

Benedicte Desrus/Reuters
South Sudan returnees sit on the bank of the river Nile as they arrive at the main port of Juba after 17 days on a boat from Khartoum on Dec. 17. Over 55,000 southerners have returned ahead of the Jan. 9 referendum on the independence of the South.

The Dutch development organization SNV funds a very cool project in Sudan which enables local journalists to travel to different areas of Sudan to report on issues critical to the future of their country. The project, called “The Juba Briefings,” started earlier this year with an issue on land tenure issues in the south’s Eastern Equatoria state. The idea behind the project, suggested by its name, is to inform the people of Juba about what is happening around the country, since many of the bustling new capital’s citizens aren’t able to frequently visit places outside of Juba, like Torit for example (the capital of Eastern Equatoria).

The second edition was published this week and you can read it in PDF form by clicking here. It focuses on capturing the voices of people from the Abyei area – the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya populations who will be directly affected by the outcomes of high-level negotiations occurring now on the future of Abyei.

See below for a couple excerpts from this Briefing, titled “Abyei Voices: Messages for the Future.” The great thing about this particular edition of the publication is that it features the verbatim opinions of the people of Abyei, collected by journalists from three different parts of Sudan. The sad thing is that most of these views illustrate a severely polarized situation on the ground between the pastoralist Misseriya people who seasonally graze through Abyei and the Ngok Dinka, who call the area their homeland:

Nyiol Paguot, Dinka elder:

“The future of Abyei is under threat, because the government wants to rule over us by force. Our main worry is that the NCP might attack the area once we decide to join the South… People are waiting to retaliate. Nowadays people are being seen missing. We suspect that the Misseriya, the JIUs, and Arab militias are responsible for this.”

Mahasin Adam, a 20-year-old Misseriya woman:

“Many people think that the issue of Abyei only concerns Misseriya and Dinka, but it is the rest of the country that can drag us into war. All the country should work hard to solve the problem. I hope there is peace in all of Sudan, not just in Abyei because Sudan is like a body – if one part suffers than all is affected.”

This past Monday, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Maj. Gen. Scott Gration told reporters on a conference call that it was no longer possible for Abyei’s self-determination vote – separate from the south’s referendum but originally scheduled (per the 2005 peace deal) for the same date – to happen on time… or at all. Gration made reference to the possibility of a political solution to Abyei. This euphemism for a negotiated settlement which would split the region between north and south – where exactly the new border would be drawn is unsurprisingly hotly contested – is increasingly being practically discussed as the most likely possibility. This settlement might be viewed as the final chapter of not only months of negotiations between Khartoum and Juba, but years and years of agreements, protocols, rulings, and promises – not to be dramatic, but all of these things have been broken or abrogated. In considering if this possibility could become a reality, it’s worth considering Ms. Adam’s words quoted above. What does a broken Abyei mean for the post-referendum future of Sudan, or of the two Sudans?

Maggie Fick is a freelance journalist based in Juba, Sudan who blogs here.

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