By Luka Biong Deng
July 1, 2013 - With the 50 years in existence, the AU and its institutions need a thorough review to assess their institutional and organizational capabilities to deliver better and to meet the aspirations of the people of the continent. In particular the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) that was established as standing decision-making body for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts may need scrutiny. As the Council will receive report from the AU High-level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) before the expiry of its mandate by the end of July 2013, this will provide opportunities to review progress and learn lessons for maintaining peace in South Sudan and Sudan. I will use the case of Abyei to contribute to such review of AUHIP and the decision-making process in the AUPSC.
On 24th April 2012, the AUPSC adopted a roadmap for South Sudan and Sudan as an effort to put the two countries on track of peace. This Roadmap provides a framework within a time-bound of three months for resolving holistically all the pending issues between the two states including the final status of Abyei. The Roadmap made it very clear that if the Parties failed to agree on any of the pending issues, then the AUHIP will come with proposal that will be endorsed by the Council as final and binding resolution. It may not require any effort to make a judgment about the fate of the AU Roadmap. The nine (9) agreements on the post-secession issues signed on 27th September 2012 have been put to a halt by the unilateral decision of Bashir. The status of claimed and disputed border areas has not been resolved. The final status of Abyei is not as well resolved.
Let me take the way the issue of Abyei has been handled by the AUHIP and AUPSC to elucidate the inaction and inconsistency in the decision-making process and architectures of the AU. When the Parties failed to agree on resolving the issue of Abyei, the AUHIP came up on 21st September 2012 with a proposal on the final status of Abyei. This Proposal is one of the best achievements of the AUHIP as it is well informed and rooted in earlier agreements and above all it is bold in addressing the issues that prevented the conduct of Abyei Referendum on 9th July 2011..
Consistent with the AU Roadmap, the AUHIP presented its proposal on the final status of Abyei to the AUPSC. The meeting of the AUPSC at the level of permanent representatives accepted on 24th October 2012 this proposal as representing a fair, equitable and workable solution to the final status of Abyei, which takes into account existing agreements entered into by the Parties, as well as the needs and interests of the communities on the ground. The Council requested the two countries to engage each other to reach consensus on this proposal within a period of six weeks. The Council also decided that, in the event that the two countries fail to reach agreement on the final status of the Abyei within the six-week period, then the Council will endorse the AUHIP’s Proposal on the final status of Abyei as final and binding, and would seek the endorsement by the UN Security Council of the same.
On 14th December 2012, the AUPSC meeting at the level of foreign ministers reiterated its acceptance of the AUHIP’s Proposal on the final status of Abyei. Despite the refusal of Bashir to the AUHIP Proposal and the deadline set by the Council expired on 5th December 2012 for the two countries to agree on the AUHIP Proposal, the Council failed again to endorse the AUHIP Proposal. Instead the Council referred the determination on the issue of the final status of Abyei to its meeting at the level of the heads of state and government.
On 24th January 2013, a summit between President Salva and Bashir was held in Addis Ababa and the two Presidents failed to agree on the final status of Abyei. President Salva, in his address to the AUPSC meeting on 25th January 2013 at the level of heads of state and government, made it clear that he reached a deadlock with Bashir on the final status of Abyei. Rather than endorsing the AUHIP Proposal as per its commitment in the Roadmap and after the failure of the two Presidents to agree on the final status of Abyei, the AUPSC at its meeting on 25th January 2013 reaffirmed its acceptance instead of endorsing the AUHIP’s Proposal. The Council, paradoxically, strongly urged again the two presidents to resume their negotiations on the final status of Abyei as proposed by the AUHIP. The Council requested the AUHIP, with the support of the IGAD Chair, to continue to assist the two Presidents to urgently resolve this issue of Abyei, and requested the AUHIP to report to the Council in March 2013 to make further determination on the issue of Abyei.
Unfortunately the Council did not meet in March or April to receive report from AUHIP on the status of negotiation of the Parties over the issue of Abyei. With the indecision and delay by the AUPSC to endorse the AUHIP’s Proposal on Abyei, the Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief Kuol Deng, who wanted to see his people to exercise their right of self-determination in a referendum as suggested by African leaders, was assassinated on 4th May 2013 by the government armed Misseryia militia. The Council then reacted by holding a meeting on 7th May 2013 after the assassination of the Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief and urged again the two Presidents to reach agreement on the final status of Abyei.
On 24th May 2013, the two Presidents met in Addis and failed to agree on the final status of Abyei and Bashir made it clear that he rejected the AUHIP Proposal on Abyei. While it became apparent that Bashir rejected the African solution for Abyei issue, the AUHIP instead of reporting the failure of the two Presidents to agree on the final status of Abyei it addressed the two Presidents to form Abyei Referendum Commission as per Abyei Protocol instead of AUHIP proposal and asked the two Presidents to nominate people for drafting Abyei Referendum Bill to be passed by the parliaments of the two countries. In fact the AUHIP seems to backtrack from its proposal as it put the issue of Abyei back to the status before the enactment of Abyei Referendum Act, 2009.
The AUHIP was not expected to come up with a new proposal but it was expected to report to the AUPSC whether the Parties agreed on the AUHIP Proposal so that the Council can take further decision. In fact the AUHIP Proposal on the final status of Abyei has become the AU Proposal and not that of AUHIP as it has been accepted by the AUPSC meetings at level of permanent representatives, foreign ministers and heads of state and government.
This trajectory of indecision and inconsistency in the decision-making process in the AUPSC over the final status of Abyei has contributed towards sacrificing the safety, security, and livelihoods of the Ngok Dinka for the sake of other concerns and interests. The most recent iteration of this indecisiveness of the AU came when the Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief was assassinated and this will have far reaching repercussion if the AU continues dodging the endorsement of the AUHIP Proposal, particularly the conduct of Abyei Referendum in October 2013. This lukewarm position by the AU over Abyei has created an environment that strengthens the Government of Sudan and its armed Misseriyia militia to benefit from the status quo not only by scooping 65,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Abyei area but also by cleansing the area of its Ngok Dinka inhabitants and this will leave Abyei area vulnerable to further instability and unrest.
The days and weeks ahead offer the AUPSC the opportunity to devote concerted diplomatic efforts to protect the safety and security of the Ngok Dinka and ensure that the area does not become a catalyst for further South Sudan-South violence. President Mbeki should be bold enough to report to the next meeting of the AUPSC that Bashir and President Salva have failed to agree on the final status of Abyei and to ask the Council to endorse the AUHIP Proposal on the final status of Abyei as final and binding African solution. In order to save the Roadmap and to restore its credibility and commitment to African solutions for African problems, the AUPSC should endorse in its next meeting in July 2013 the AUHIP Proposal on the final status of Abyei and to call the two countries to implement it fully and immediately as well as directing the Chairperson of the AU Commission to appoint the chair of Abyei Referendum Commission to conduct referendum in October 2013.
Luka Biong is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a senior member of South Sudan’s ruling SPLM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is also published in the New Nation Newspaper.