Abyei Arbitration: What Next

By Steve Paterno

May 10, 2009 (ST)

Abyei is a region in Sudan considered by some individuals and opinion makers as a bridge between the South and North of the country. Others see it as the Kashmir of Sudan given the intensity of claims over it by both sides. Whatsoever, Abyei is home to Ngok Dinka whose deep traditional ties is with the rest of the Dinka ethnicity in the South—the area that has become politically volatile between the Sudan People Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), a ruling party in the South with an army, and the regime of National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum.

Historically, Abyei area belonged to the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms in Bahr el-Ghazal region of South Sudan. However, in 1905, the Anglo-Egyptian colonial power annexed the area to the Kordofan region in North of Sudan for administrative purposes. Throughout South-North civil war, the Abyei people fought alongside their kith and kin in the South. That is why in 1972, the Addis Ababa Agreement recognized the uniqueness of Abyei people and granted a provision for the people of Abyei a right for a referendum to either be part of the then established regional government of the South or to remain in the North. Unfortunately, the Abyei people were denied that right of holding a referendum after they petitioned for it. Nonetheless, the 2005 groundbreaking Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed between the SPLM/A and Khartoum, built-in an Abyei Protocol. The protocol, among other things, stipulated that Abyei shall be run under special administrative status during the interim period, and provided that the people of Abyei shall have a right to hold a referendum in the end of the interim period on whether they want to become part of the administration of Bahr el-Ghazal or retain their status in Kordofan. The Abyei referendum supposes to run concurrently with the South Sudanese referendum, where the Southerners will decide on whether to be part of a united Sudan or an independent country.

The Abyei Protocol also called for immediate establishment of Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC). The ABC mandate was “to define and demarcate the Area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905.” As such, the ABC was then established with five members from NCP, five from SPLM, and five international experts, with the experts swaying the final decision in the commission. The ABC was supposed to deliver its final report to the Presidency before the end of pre interim period. The final report must be binding to all the parties to the CPA, and immediately put into effect.

On the contrary, when the ABC presented, on time, its final report to the Presidency, the NCP rejected it outright on the ground that the ABC overstepped on its mandate by demarcating the boundaries beyond the administrative transferred area to Kordofan in 1905, in addition to, the used of different unspecified dates other than the 1905 to make determination in delineation of the boundaries. The NCP then argued that since the ABC did not determine the boundaries on the specified date of 1905, which the transfer took place, therefore, the ABC report is not final and binding, and could not be effective. As a result, the entire provisions of Abyei Protocol were put on hold. The area languished without administration for the good part of the half of the interim period. The tension between the two parties in the region was heightened by troop-buildup. The SPLA soldiers and the nomadic Messiria, a group understood to be supported by Khartoum, engaged in routine violence and skirmishes. But by 2008, the climax reached a boiling point. A battled between the SPLA and Khartoum armed forces ultimately ensued in Abyei town as the two armies fought for the control of the town. Hundreds died and the entire population was displaced. The whole town of Abyei was razed aground, which led to one Western commentator with knowledge of the region to declare that the “town of Abyei has ceased to exist.” In a final push of the battle, the SPLA was beaten off and the town came under occupation of Khartoum armed forces.

An immediate cessation of hostility was called. Peacekeeping troops were deployed to maintain a buffer zone between the warring parties. The two parties agreed to renegotiate the Abyei Protocol in contravention of the CPA. They came up with the Abyei Roadmap Agreement. The Abyei Roadmap Agreement resolves the issue of security arrangements, the return of IDPs, the administrative status of Abyei, and promises a final settlement to Abyei’s issue through the arbitration in tribunal process. Since then, the threat of continuous troops’ buildup in the region is alarming. A contingent force of joint integrated unit, made up of the SPLA and Khartoum armed forces are deployed in the area, with police patrol in the town. However, tensions still remain high. Any slight missteps could lead into a major outbreak of war. Just for example, late last year a dispute in a marketplace involving a soldier from Khartoum armed forces and a local merchant resulted into deadly shootouts that left several dead, scores injured and the population scrambling for their lives. The repatriation of the IDPs is still a nightmare. A fragile administration is set in place, and the two parties both presented their final cases to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague as a last resort to settling the issue once and for all through a peaceful and legal means.

In the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the main issue to be determined is whether or not the ABC had exceeded its mandate “to define and demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905.” In conclusion, the NCP argued that if the court determines that the ABC did not exceed its mandate, the court “shall make a declaration to that effect and issue an award for the full and immediate implementation of the ABC report.” The NCP went on to insist that if, however, the court rules that the ABC exceeded its mandate, then the court “shall proceed to define the boundaries of the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, based on the submissions of the parties.” The SPLM/A in its closing argument, was persistent that the ABC report is “entitled to final and binding effect,” but if the court determines that it is not, “then it should go on to define the Abyei Area to encompass all of the territory occupied and used by the Ngok Dinka in 1905, including of the northernmost part of that territory which the ABC Experts excluded from their definition of the Abyei Area.”

At this instant, the decision is left in the hands of the five-member arbitral tribunal to issue the awarded judgment within a period of 90 days. No one knows for sure how the arbiters will render their decision, but that is even irrelevant to the actual situation, because the right question to ask is whether the decision can ultimately lead into final resolution into Abyei issue or if at all the final decision of the court is going to be honored. The reason the court had to hear the case in the first place is because of Khartoum and NCP in particular long history of not honoring agreements. This is best demonstrated in the NCP rejection of the Abyei Protocol, the ABC report, and some of the provisions related to the CPA.

Commenting on the daily Akhbar Al-Youm, Al-Sawarmi Khalid who very much toed the view of the NCP captured the real essence of what would unfold regardless of whichever way the decision of the arbitration may go. Khalid wrote that since the Messeria and Dinka both share the ownership of Abyei, “the arbitration would be of no use as no one would heed to it and each tribe will fight the other should the arbitration favor one of them against the other.” He went on to argue that “any ruling on the issue by the arbitration court will amount to a declaration of war.”

What Khalid intentionally omitted to mention is that it is not only the two ethnic groups that claim stakes on Abyei, but also the two powerful armies of the South and that of Khartoum, with each one backing one ethnic group in this dispute. Khartoum has mastered well its dirty tactics to wage war through proxies; on this case, it’s going to push for the Messeria as the scapegoat to spark the war in Abyei—the war that will eventually engulf the entire region to derail the CPA. It is going to be the same old story again of an ethnic cleansing with devastating genocidal impacts and results. This frightening ethnic tendency is revealed in the new report just released by a Washington, D.C. based organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI). According to the report, (entitled, Losing Hope: Citizen Perceptions of Peace and Reconciliation in the Three Areas), the Arabs from Kordofan region who participated in the studies conclude that the dispute in Abyei is about land and they blame Khartoum for not offering enough support to the Messeria to conduct effective war against the Ngok Dinka. The Ngok Dinka on their part, vow that they will not accept anything less than the size of their land as drawn in ABC report, which to them is already too much of a compromise. The words of one participant in the NDI studies, sums up the Ngok Dinka position when he states that “land is the important thing, and we cannot leave Abyei even though it means death. We can fight to the last man.”

It is obvious of course that the SPLM/A is not going to stand aside and watch a Khartoum led and supported Arab Messeria, massacring the Ngok Dinka and have them driven off their homeland in scotch-earth campaign just like what is now going on in Darfur or as it did happen in the other parts of marginalized Sudan in the past. In Essence, Abyei is an interesting launching pad to pursue a larger conflict, because of its oil producing status and potential for more oil explorations—the area presents an ideal battleground for twenty-first century competition over scarce resources, and you bet the warring parties are going to battle for it.

Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Roman Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at stevepaterno@yahoo.com



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