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SUDAN-ABYEI (CORRECTED) Dec-10-2010 (1,120 words) With map posted Dec. 3. xxxi

Border region of Abyei complicates Southern Sudan independence vote

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

JUBA, Southern Sudan (CNS) -- As residents of Southern Sudan prepare for the Jan. 9 referendum on breaking away from the rest of the country, church leaders are struggling to keep a separate vote from derailing the South's move toward independence.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending decades of civil war provides for a separate referendum in the border region of Abyei, allowing residents there to decide whether they'll remain part of the North or cast their lot with the South, which is expected to vote for separation.

Yet negotiations on the Abyei referendum have broken down over a dispute on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya, who bring their cattle to Abyei during the dry season, should be allowed to vote. The government in Khartoum has insisted the Misseriya should participate in the referendum, while the southern government in Juba has maintained that only the permanent residents of Abyei, mostly members of the Dinka Ngok tribe, should be allowed to cast a ballot.

The exact date of the vote is in question following the U.S. State Department's Dec. 7 acknowledgment that the January balloting on Abyei will not take place as planned.

Church leaders are angered by the delay.

"Abyei isn't important for the North. It's only being held hostage now because the North doesn't want the South to split off," said Father John Oryem, coordinator of the justice and peace commission for the Diocese of El Obeid, which includes Abyei.

"Khartoum has taken Abyei hostage, and what are they asking for in return? Do they want the International Criminal Court to drop the charges (of war crimes against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir)? Do they want to be removed from the United States' list of countries sponsoring terrorism? Abyei's fate hinges on international issues, not local issues," Father Oryem said.

The dispute over Abyei turned violent in 2008 when northern troops went on a rampage, burning most of the main town and displacing 25,000 residents. Father Peter Suleiman, pastor of Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish in Abyei, recalled finding the church in ruins when U.N. troops escorted him into the smoking city.

Although it became a target in the war, the church has not retreated from working for peace. Representatives of the Sudan Council of Churches, which includes the Catholic Church, are working to establish a dialogue between Dinka Ngok and Misseriya leaders.

Father Oryem recently led a workshop on peace-building for local tribal elders in Abyei, although he said the church was unable to convince Misseriya leaders to participate.

The nomads, Father Suleiman said, have nothing to fear from southerners if all they want is to graze their animals in Abyei, a right guaranteed by the 2005 agreement.

"The Dinkas will allow the Misseriya to bring their animals to drink water, free of charge. They just want the Misseriya not to be armed. The Misseriya want a guarantee that if they are unarmed, no one will rob their cows. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (the southern government's military) has said it will protect the Misseriya, but the Misseriya don't trust the SPLA," the priest said.

Although Abyei is often referred to in news articles as "oil-rich," its glory days of drilling are past. Today, Abyei produces less than 1 percent of Sudan's total petroleum output. Its value now lies more in its fertility. In a region suffering increasing desertification, Abyei has water and fertile soil.

John Ashworth, an adviser to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, said Abyei's importance derives less from its resources and more from its symbolic visibility as a coveted prize in the political tug of war between the North and South.

Abyei's residents are growing tired of being pulled in two directions. In late November, one Dinka Ngok leader announced that if negotiations on the referendum led nowhere, the people of Abyei would consider holding their own vote in January.

"It really doesn't matter to Khartoum whether Abyei ends up in the North or the South, but as a bargaining chip it's very important," said Ashworth, a former Mill Hill priest. "Southerners want it, precisely because the people of Abyei are southerners. Yet there's a point beyond which people at the grassroots won't go. You can bargain with their lives up to a point, and then they pick up their guns and say, 'We don't care what you do with your army, but we aren't going to compromise any further.'"

Renewed violence in the region seems more likely given an October report from the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey that Khartoum had sent troops, tanks and heavy weapons to an area just north of Abyei. Southern leaders in Juba have accused Khartoum of rearming the Misseriya, which served as a proxy militia for the North during the long civil war.

Father Oryem, working on peace-building efforts, said the Misseriya are made up of three groups. One, which he called the "normal Misseriya," simply graze their cows and return home. The second, he said, includes the militias organized by the North. The third, much smaller, group is the "educated sons" who live in Khartoum and tell the militias when to abduct and kill people, he said.

"The Misseriya with the cattle are the innocent ones. They care for nothing but the well-being of their cows, but they're being played with today," Father Oryem said.

Paul Nantulya, a technical consultant on peace-building for Catholic Relief Services, said the international community is partly to blame for the deterioration of negotiations over Abyei's future. Nantulya said the government in Khartoum repeatedly has been allowed to renegotiate issues that were resolved by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

"Khartoum is now demanding that the Misseriya be allowed to vote, which is a violation of the CPA. Yet, instead of the Obama administration saying this is a violation, it pressures the South to compromise even more," Nantulya told Catholic News Service.

"The U.S. strategy seems to be that we don't have leverage with these people and they're misbehaving, so let's counter that by getting the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement) to make as many compromises as possible," he said. "That strategy is only working because the SPLM has moved the process forward by making all the compromises.

"I'm not saying the SPLM are angels," he continued. "They have problems of their own with governance and all sorts of things. But when it comes to the CPA, they have compromised repeatedly in order to save the peace agreement. That may yield a solution, but it will be a bad peace because it will be something the government in the South won't be able to stomach, or the people that they represent won't be able to stomach.

"So rather than peace, we'll see the conflict continue," he said.


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