By Muhammad Osman
October 12, 2010 (ADDIS ABABA) – Nine days of U.S.-mediated talks between north and south Sudan over a stalled referendum vote due in January 2011 on the future of the oil rich area Abyei have failed to reach an agreement, stoking fears that the vote could now be at risk of total collapse.
- woman displaced by fighting in Abyei in southern Sudan waits for assistance in the village of Agok May 21, 2008. (Reuters)
The obituary of the marathon talks, which took place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was announced Tuesday in a joint statement issued by the negotiating parties and the US mediation team headed by the US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration.
The statement said that despite serious efforts the two sides "did not succeed in reaching an agreement on the eligibility criteria for voters" in Abyei referendum.
Meanwhile, officials from the north Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s liberation Movement (SPLM), which controls the south, have traded blame for the failure of the talks, accusing each other of rejecting proposals put forward by the mediation team to resolve the key dispute over the eligibility to vote in Abyei referendum.
Another round of talks has been scheduled to take place between October 27 and November 5 in Addis Ababa, according to multiple sources who spoke to Sudan Tribune.
The head of the NCP’s negotiating delegation in Addis Ababa talks, Presidential adviser Salah Gosh, told Sudan Tribune that the next round of talks will be attended by first vice-president and GOSS president Salva Kiir and vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha.
Furthermore, Sudan Tribune has learned from a source privy to the talks that the next round will be moderated by the African Union’s (AU) High-Level Panel on Sudan, headed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki.
Abyei is an area of oil-production and tribal overlapping between the indigenous south Sudanese tribe of Dinka Njok and the Arab nomadic tribe of Missireiya, which is associated with north Sudan.
Citizens of Abyei should vote on whether to join the north or the semi-autonomous south Sudan in the event of the latter’s widely-expected full independence in another referendum scheduled to take place simultaneously with that of Abyei in January 2011.
The two plebiscites are key planks of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which in 2005 ended decades of civil war between the mainly Christian south Sudan and the Arab, Muslim-dominated north.
However, north and south Sudan have been deadlocked over whether members of Al-Misiriyyah, who only traverses the borders into Abyei on seasonal basis to graze their cattle, should be eligible to vote in the referendum.
A referendum commission for Abyei is yet to be composed.
Disagreements over the area’s boundaries led the NCP and the SPLM to refer the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which ruled to redraw the boundaries of Abyei, ceding key oilfields to north Sudan but gave the South most of the land including Abyei town which has huge areas of fertile land and one significant oilfield.
However, the borders have yet to be demarcated to comply with the court’s verdict because of threats leveled by the cattle-herding Missireiya tribe.
The SPLM has interpreted the ruling as meaning that Missireiya have no right to vote in areas assigned by the PCA to the Dinka Ngok.
Pagan Amum, the SPLM’s secretary-general and head of the south’s negotiating delegation, has held the NCP responsible for the failure of the talks and warned that the current disagreement could put an end to peace in Sudan.
"These talks have failed to reach any agreement, unfortunately, despite the hard work exerted by the mediator, Scott Gration with his team," he said.
According to Amum, the talks “basically failed because the NCP came with a fresh new claim that Abyei belonged to the north and to Missireiya people, and that (the latter) must vote in the referendum.”
“This round has failed, and the effort of General Scott Gration did not succeed to remove the obstacles the National Congress has placed. Despite a lot of incentives he has put on the table,” Amum said.
Amum warned that failure to resolve Abyei dispute “could lead to an end of the peace process itself and the peace may unravel in the Sudan.”
On the other hand, the NCP’s Salah Gosh told reporters at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa yesterday that the talks failed because the SPLM refused to agree to the mediators’ proposals on the issue of voters’ eligibility.
"Our brothers in the SPLM did not accept the proposal of the mediators," Gosh said.
Asked whether the tight timeframe could allow the referendum to go ahead as planned, Gosh said it would still be possible to hold the referndum as planned if the disputed issues are thrashed out.
However, he later said that the two partners could agree to hold the referendum anytime up to April 2011, the end of the CPA’s timetable. Gosh stressed that the two sides must work to find a solution within the CPA’s timeframe.
According to Sudn Tribune’s sources, the American mediators proposed that the right to vote should be granted to those who lived in Abyei for 200 days during each of the last three years.
Sudan Tribune has also learned that the two sides have contemplated the possibility of scrapping the referendum in favor of a negotiated settlement to the dispute.
This proposal, say Sudan Tribune’s sources, was first put forward by the SPLM which later rejected it, citing lack of guarantees that the NCP would hold up its end of the deal.
Meanwhile, north Sudan’s Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha on Tuesday flew to Juba, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of south Sudan, and held a meeting with the region’s president Salva Kiir.
Salah Gosh told reporters that Taha’s meeting with Kiir aimed at creating a roadmap for the next round of talks in Addis Ababa.
Last Monday, the Sudanese Vice president Ali Osman Taha expressed doubt that the Abyei referendum can be held on time saying many issues need to be resolved first.