The future of Abyei
In accordance with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Abyei was due to have its fate decided in a referendum in 2011, but this never happened because Sudan and South-Sudan could not agree on the question of eligibility to vote. Whereas Juba saw the permanent residents of Abyei, the Ngok Dinka ethnic group, as the only eligible voters, Khartoum argued that also the nomad Misseryia people, who stay in Abyei for several months each year while they graze their cattle, should be eligble to vote.
For over two years, the residents of Abyei have waited to determine the future of their region. The issue remains a returning challenge for the young state of South-Sudan, and there are fears that it potentially could have a destabilizing effect in a fragile region.
“Please set the date!”
Last year, the African Union proposed that a referendum date should be set in the month of October 2013. Throughout October, citizens of Abyei staged protests in which they expressed their readiness to vote, reminding the governments in Juba and Khartoum as well as the international community, about the African Union proposal. When no date was set for the official referendum by the end of October, Ngok Dinka civil society organized an unofficial referendum in Abyei, in which a vast majority voted for the region to join South Sudan. With only Ngok Dinkas voting in the referendum, however, the outcome was far from unexpected.
Being an unofficial and unilateral referendum it could not be acknowledged, and the results were deemed invalid by both Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the international community, including the United Nations and the African Union. The referendum was a clear signal, however, that people in Abyei are running out of patience, and that the status of the region is a pressing issue, in need of a lasting solution.
At this point, a solution does not appear to be near. There have, however, been some positive developments in the relationship between Khartoum and Juba recently. In October, Sudan’s President Bashir visited his southern counterpart, and the two presidents had the chance to discuss the future of Abyei. Salva Kiir and Bashir agreed upon the framework for administration and policing in Abyei, which is an important first step, but so far the two presidents have not been able to find a lasting solution for the region. Implementation of the initial agreements and moving towards the next step is now the task – and challenge – at hand. Identifying a lasting solution for Abyei will be a significant move in the process of further normalizing the relations between Sudan and South Sudan, as well as stabilizing the region as a whole.
The issue of Abyei is, however, only one of the many challenges facing South Sudan as it is moving towards its third anniversary. Continued internal conflict in Jonglei state, troubles with the drafting of a permanent constitution, and political struggle, are only a few of the many issues at hand. At this fragile stage, it is pivotal that the young state receives all the support it can get in building its own democratic institutions from above – and from below. The Oslo Center is working in close collaboration with its local partner organization, South Sudan Youth Participation Agency (SSYPA), with hosting youth dialogue forums in South Sudan, in which a meeting place is provided for young people who wish to participate in shaping the future of their country.