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Inside Story

Abyei referendum: A threat to peace?

As people in the disputed border region vote on joining Sudan or South Sudan, we ask if it will trigger further unrest.

Last Modified: 29 Oct 2013 14:22
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Since becoming Africa's newest country in 2011, South Sudan continues to remain locked in a land dispute with Sudan over the Abyei region which covers 10,000 square kilometres of farmland, desert and oil fields.

People in the contested border region have voted in an unofficial referendum to decide which country they want to belong to - Sudan or South Sudan.

The way we are conducting this referendum is based on the Abyei protocol .... The nomads - whether they're from the south or north - will not be eligible to be defined as residents. Subsequently the Misseriya are not part of the referendum .... This is really a people's choice, the choice of peace, the choice of stability, the choice of good relationship with Sudan ....  Whatever the choice it's not going to harm anybody .... it should not harm the Misseriya, I think the right of the Misseriya to access water and pastures are guaranteed … but there is no way you can impose the future of Abyei to be hostage by people who are using the resources of Abyei.

Luka Biong, a spokesperson for the Abyei Referendum High Committee

The vote, organised by the Abyei Referendum Committee, is likely to increase tensions between the two countries. 

"I think what is obviously a matter of sovereignty has become a political and administrative issue and I think that the election process could be the stimulus to involve broader sections of the communities in violent struggle .... Again there are idea brokers and politicians who capitalise on the misery of these communities and this has been happening for 70 to 80 years," says Waleed Madibo, a Sudan affairs analyst.

Abyei's future was a critical feature of the 2005 peace deal that was signed between the Sudanese government and rebels that ended the civil war and led the way to South Sudan's independence.

But this referendum is not backed by either government nor is it recognised by the international community.

The oil-rich region has been a source of conflict for nearly 50 years. The people of Abyei were promised a referendum after the end of the first civil war. But they lived through a second civil war without a settlement.

In 2005, a peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudanese rebels ended that war. Yet once again the Abyei question was left unresolved.

In 2011, Abyei was meant to vote on whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan - the same day Juba voted overwhelmingly to split from the north. But the referendum never happened.

The Abyei region is split between two different groups with different loyalties. 

The Ngok Dinka tribe have strong ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to the Dinka of South Sudan, while the Misseriya are a nomadic Arab tribe with links to Sudan.

Misseriya pass through Abyei and other border areas with their cattle, depending on the season and have strongly opposed the unofficial referendum.

But for the Ngok Dinka tribe it is a historic opportunity and some 100,000 people have returned to Abyei take part in the poll.

So what will the referendum mean for South Sudan's bumpy relationship with its northern neighbour? Will the vote create more unrest in the fiercely contested region?

Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, is joined by guests: Luka Biong, a spokesperson for the Abyei Referendum High Committee; John Ryle, the director of the Rift Valley Institute and an anthropologist specialising on Sudan; and Waleed Madibo, a Sudan affairs analyst.

"Certainly we should congratulate the people of Abyei for conducting a peaceful referendum… all credit to them… and it's a combination of a very long aspiration because this issue goes back many years to the colonial period. But unfortunately it's unlikely to be recognised by anybody. So it's not really going to solve the problem ... I think it's important that we see this as recognition of what the inhabitants of Abyei want and I think the outcome of the referendum is a forgone conclusion just as the referendum on the independence of South Sudan was .... I think we have to think of the people who use this area. We know what the states' interests are ... Abyei is oil rich but for the people who live there it's water rich. These people are pastoralists. They have to have access to dry-season grazing. That's why there is this local conflict."

John Ryle, the director of the Rift Valley Institute and an anthropologist specialising on Sudan

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Al Jazeera
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