Global Policy Forum

Sudan: Abyei Referendum to be Delayed, say Northern Officials

The forthcoming referendum on the future of Abyei, an oil-rich district claimed by North and South Sudan, will be delayed, according to North Sudanese officials. The referendum was scheduled for January 2011, and the UN is moving peacekeeping troops to the border between North and South Sudan in preparation. Local politicians in the South have responded angrily to the suggestion of delays. Voter registration is a controversial issue which is central to the North's call for a postponement of the referendum.





By Josephine Whitaker

October 14, 2010


North Sudanese officials today declared that a forthcoming referendum on the future of Abyei, an oil-rich district claimed by both North and South Sudan, can no longer take place on schedule in January 2011. This statement comes as the United Nations announces it will move peacekeeping troops to police the border between North and South Sudan, in response to growing fears that a forthcoming referendum likely to divide the country may lead to a return to conflict.

Government officials announced early on Thursday that the vote would have to be delayed. According to Didiri Mohammad Ahmad, a representative of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP), "it is very clear that right now it is not possible to have the Abyei referendum on 9 Jan 2011." Local politicians have responded with anger to suggestions of delays, describing the move as "unacceptable." According to Deng Arop Kuol, a senior member of the dominant southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement, "the people of Abyei are still holding out for the referendum... if the government does not give them that option we can have a self-run referendum."

Concerns over the forthcoming referenda, which are due to take place in Abyei and in southern Sudan on 7 January, have prompted the UN to respond to a request from southern Sudanese president Salva Kiir for UN troops to protect the south from northern aggression. Alain LeRoy, head of UN peacekeeping, said today that peacekeepers will move within weeks to "hot spots" along the border.

The openSecurity verdict: Efforts by the northern government to delay the Abyei vote come after a dispute over who will participate in the forthcoming referendum.  A 2009 protocol establishing the conduct of next year's referenda defines eligible voters as all residents of Abyei, including nomadic herders. However, the SPLM claims that all residents spending over seven months in the province should be eligible to vote - a claim hotly contested by Khartoum.

Voter registration, a highly sensitive topic both in Abyei and the south, is just one of many issues crucial to next year's vote that remains to be resolved. These referenda are a vital term of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord that brought over twenty years of civil war to an end in Sudan. As the deadline draws closer, fears are mounting that failures to adhere to the framework established in the CPA will reignite conflict in Sudan.

Talks between northern and southern representatives aimed at settling the issue of who should be eligible to vote collapsed on Tuesday in Addis Ababa. This has stoked fears in south Sudan and Abyei that the north may seek to reignite conflicts there in an attempt to defer what will almost certainly be the breakup of Sudan. The announcement today that UN peacekeepers will shortly be deployed along the border between north and south Sudan is an indication of how seriously the international community is taking this threat. The United States, however, remains optimistic that both referenda can go ahead if all parties can reach agreement when talks reconvene on 27 October.



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