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Sudan’s Abyei Village a Possible ‘Wobbly Domino’ in Referendum Vote

Aerial view of Abyei taken in July 2009. Photo by Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images

Abyei, a village in central Sudan that is still crawling out of its violence-ravaged past, has become one of the keys to holding a peaceful referendum in January.

On Jan. 9, southern Sudanese are voting on a referendum on whether to separate from the North. On the same day, the residents of Abyei will vote on whether to remain part of the North or South.

A sticking point is voter eligibility for Abyei residents, and whether the Misseriya, nomadic people who come from the north to graze their cattle in Abyei for part of the year, will be able to vote. The Dinka tribe, who generally align themselves with the South, live in Abyei year-round. The borders of Abyei itself, which straddles the north-south divide of the country, also remain undefined.

At a summit on Sudan held Friday during the U.N. National Assembly in New York, some 40 heads of state, foreign ministers and other officials spoke of the importance of holding peaceful referenda in Sudan for the rest of Africa and the world.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said if issues such as the drawing of the north-south border are not resolved, “we will have a breakdown of peace.”

“Sudan is the most important issue of war and peace in Africa,” he said. “If we fail, it will be a catastrophe for the whole continent.”

President Obama called for a peaceful referendum and for all sides to respect the will of the people in South Sudan and Abyei in particular.

Ambassador Princeton Lyman, a senior adviser on Sudan at the State Department, said in a telephone interview Monday that Abyei is the most serious issue still to be resolved regarding the referenda.

Officials from political parties from the North and South — the National Congress Party and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — met last weekend over the issue of Abyei, said Lyman.

“It was a very fulsome discussion, but they didn’t reach agreement, so they’ve agreed to meet next week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where their communiqué that they issued said we intend to complete the arrangements for Abyei at that meeting,” he said.

“The residents (of Abyei) want security — which they haven’t had because of the episodic violence in the area — and certainty,” said Linda Bishai, a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who conducts workshops in Sudan. But “the profound uncertainty of their status, plus the question of where the boundary is, and a lack of knowledge of Misseriya grazing rights, all make everyone extremely tense.”

Making the situation even more volatile — the northern and southern governments both have militias over which they don’t have complete control, Bishai continued. That, coupled with many Misseriya’s distrust of the northern government and the growing discontent the Dinka feel over their treatment by the southern government contribute toward Abyei becoming a potential flashpoint when the January referenda roll around, she said.

The reason more and more people are raising the issue of Abyei when discussing the referenda, she added, is because they see it as the “wobbly domino” that could tip the country back into civil war.

“When you’re talking about a possible division of a country, it’s a very traumatic experience for everybody,” said Lyman, “so I think this is very tough, but I do think it’s doable” as long as there is an understanding on the basic issues, if the referendum is carried out in a way that reflects the will of the people, and the north recognizes that result, he said.

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