Didiri Mohammad Ahmad, a senior official in Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), said Oct. 14 that there is not enough time to prepare for the Abyei referendum, currently scheduled to occur on the same day as the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, Jan. 9, 2011. At the same news conference, Sudanese Minister of International Cooperation Jalal Yousuf al Digair said the government would be open to a proposal to delay the vote, in which residents of Abyei will decide whether to become part of Southern Sudan, by a few months. Neither statement is tantamount to an official request from Khartoum that the referendum be postponed, but they will send a message to the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan in Juba that such a demand may be just around the corner.
Juba has repeatedly linked the Abyei referendum to the larger and more important vote on Southern Sudanese independence, saying that the Jan. 9 date for each poll is sacrosanct. Southern Sudanese leaders fear that allowing a delay in Abyei, which still does not even have a referendum commission, less than three months before the referendum date would set off a chain of events that could see the more prominent referendum being put off as well.
Ahmad’s and al Digair’s remarks come only two days after the latest series of Abyei talks between the NCP and Southern Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were declared a failure by both delegations, who had convened in Addis Ababa on Oct. 4. More talks are scheduled to begin in the Ethiopian capital Oct. 27, but neither side has shown any real signs of being ready to budge.
Abyei represents a microcosm of the overall conflict between northern and Southern Sudan. Geographically, it sits right in the middle of the two, bounded by the northern Sudanese state of Southern Kordofan and the Southern Sudanese states of Northern Bahr al-Ghazal, Warrap and Unity. Its main inhabitants fall into two main tribal groupings, both of which have recent historical leanings toward either north or south. The semi-nomadic Missiriya tribe, which was widely used as a militant proxy against the south during the latest civil war, is allied with Khartoum, and the sedentary Ngok Dinka, with ethnic ties to the most powerful tribe in the SPLM, is allied with Juba. Neither group is entirely homogeneous in its political affiliations, of course, but generally this is the battle line along which a localised dispute has taken on a national significance.
Disputes over what constitutes a citizen of Abyei (which will determine who is allowed to vote over the territory’s future) as well as over Abyei’s exact borders (and more importantly, how many oil fields fall inside of them) have been the two most contentious points of debate since the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the most recent civil war, laid the legal foundation for the two referendums to occur in early 2011. The citizenship debate is straightforward. As the Ngok Dinka inhabit Abyei year round, they — and their southern allies — argue that the semi-nomadic Missiriya do not qualify as “citizens” and should therefore not be given an equal say in the future of Abyei. In turn, the Missiriya — and their northern allies — argue that they should not be penalised for their way of life, which requires that they periodically migrate with their herds in search of new pastures. As Abyei is one of their homes, they demand a vote. The authority tasked with settling this question, the Abyei Referendum Commission, has yet to be formed.
Borders have been an equally — if not more — contentious issue because of oil deposits in the region. This is the part of Sudan responsible for the country’s highest-quality crude, Nile Blend, pumped by a consortium known as the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), with the Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) owning the largest stake. GNPOC also operates Sudan’s lone export pipeline, a portion of which runs through Abyei. The oil fields under its control — located in blocks 1, 2 and 4 — are split between Unity state, Southern Kordofan and Abyei.
Overall production in these blocks, however, has been on a steady decline since the signing of the CPA. In 2006, the GNPOC fields were responsible for more than 252,000 barrels per day (bpd) out of a total of more than 356,000 bpd. Since then, the numbers have gone down to approximate figures of 245,000 bpd in 2007, 205,000 bpd in 2008, and to a 2009 total of just 175,000 bpd (out of roughly 475,000 bpd in total Sudanese production). In contrast, the Petrodar Operating Co. (PDOC) concession in blocks 3 and 7, which would benefit a future Southern Sudanese state — should it retain these fields — and in which CNPC also has the largest stake, has seen its output rise from slightly more than 65,000 bpd in 2006 to 241,000 bpd in 2009. PDOC produces lower-quality crude in its Dar Blend, but the difference in reserves and production trends highlight the fact that the area surrounding Abyei is no longer as critical to Sudan’s overall oil industry as it once was. (Also, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, or PCA, borders leave Abyei with just one oil field, Diffra, which produces a paltry 3,000 bpd according to 2009 estimates.)
There have been two main attempts to define Abyei’s borders since the CPA was signed. The first, in 2005, was rejected by Khartoum because it encapsulated too much of the GNPOC oil fields. The risk that Abyei would vote to join Southern Sudan meant the risk of losing the shared oil revenues that come from production there, something Khartoum is loath to do. Three years of stalemate and tension — culminating in a brief breakout of violence between armed forces from each side in 2008 that left more than 100 dead and thousands displaced — was the result of the first border report. In an attempt to reduce tensions, both sides subsequently agreed to submit the question to international arbitration, which led to a July 2009 ruling by the PCA in The Hague. The PCA’s findings were much more favourable in Khartoum’s eyes, as it created a smaller Abyei that left the vast majority of the Heglig oil fields under the jurisdiction of Southern Kordofan — and by extension, Khartoum.
At first, both sides agreed to accept the PCA ruling and get to work on preparations for the vote, such as creating a referendum commission. But this was followed by a series of delays, coupled with threats and accusations of violence on both sides, and little was accomplished. More than a year after the PCA released its “binding” report, on Aug. 1, one of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s presidential advisers — and the former head of Sudanese intelligence — Salah Gosh announced that Khartoum would not be abiding by the PCA borders.
This is what led to the recent talks in Addis Ababa, as well as the ongoing stalemate. Each side’s respective armies also remain in the region, as a sign that they are prepared to go back to war, though this is unlikely in the near term.
Khartoum is employing the same strategy in Abyei as it is in regards to the larger referendum on Southern Sudanese independence. It is attempting to delay the proceedings for as long as possible. In a perfect world for Khartoum, that would mean a permanent delay. This has a precedent, as Abyei was supposed to have a similar referendum as part of the peace deal that ended the first Sudanese Civil War in 1972; the referendum never happened, and war resumed in 1983. The next best option for Khartoum is trying to provoke a response from Sudan People’s Liberation Army units stationed along the border, as evidenced by an Oct. 12 incident in which the north’s Sudan Armed Forces troops entered Abyei town and began firing into the air.
The Sudanese government — through geography, its influence with the Missiriya and the simple fact that the most basic preparation for the Abyei referendum has still not been accomplished — has a much simpler task in trying to force a delay to the Abyei vote than it does with the higher-profile referendum in Southern Sudan. Control of the oil fields is certainly a factor in Khartoum’s calculations, as the south also covets parts of the GNPOC’s blocks that the PCA borders leave clearly in Southern Kordofan. But Khartoum’s interests in the Abyei vote are more likely linked to its ability to use a protracted dispute there as a lever against Juba in more important arenas.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
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