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Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

SPLM needs better strategy to win Sudan border row

By Steve Paterno

July 27, 2009 — A week after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) handed down its ruling on Abyei, some officials from Sudan People Liberation/Army (SPLM/A) and most South Sudanese are still in a state of confusion as they cannot quite grasp the implications of the ruling. To prove this, moments after the ruling was read out, they seem to have interpreted the ruling wrongly. People in South Sudan capital of Juba busted into celebration. More amazing was that even those South Sudanese who were in The Hague and witnessed the ruling firsthand, felt they had something to celebrate. To a cheering crowd, Government of Southern Sudan minister for SPLA Affairs, Nhial Deng Nhial, was reported to have declared, “we have won the case.” The minister’s misguided declaration of winning was echoed by many of his colleagues from within SPLM/A just as the unwarranted jubilation of the cheering crowds in Juba is shared by many South Sudanese including those in Diaspora. One can see throughout the Internet discussion forum, people congratulating themselves on the victory.

Though the tone of SPLM/A officials is gradually changing and the people’s euphoria is dying, Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan and chairman of SPLM/A has set up a new tone for yet another ill conceived strategy to give an impression of attempt to recover the losses incurred in Abyei ruling. The strategy is that since most of the strategic oilfields, (the Heglig and Bomboo to be exact), ended up in the North and not part of Abyei in the ruling, the South can gain them through the South-North border demarcation. According to President Kiir, he is very sure about South Sudan recovering these oilfields during the South-North border demarcation. The South Sudan Minister of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development, Michael Makuei Lueth argues that the arbitration ruling was only to resolve the Abyei area and not oilfields, because the oilfields were not part of Abyei as they will be tackled on South-North border demarcation. Edward Lino, a top SPLM/A officials from Abyei is even blunt about it, explaining that in fact, the oilfields are “part of Upper Nile in the Unity State, and not part of the Abyei area.” His view is supported by state government of Unity State, which immediately issued a declaration that those oilfields indeed belong to the Unity State.

This strategy is flaw and ridiculous as the reasoning behind it. First, it was the SPLM/A who argued that these oilfields belong to Abyei and not Unity State in Upper Nile region. In its plea to the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC), the SPLM/A insisted to specifically extend Abyei as far east as longitude 29º32’ E. The area, according to SPLM/A memorial document presented to the PCA, must “includes three major oilfields: Heglig, Diffra, and Bamboo.” The ABC through its finding and investigation of documents and interviewing of witnesses, decided to place Abyei boundary to east at longitude 29º32’ E. The SPLM/A went to the arbitration to precisely defend the ABC decision, which is in line with its own position. At the arbitration proceedings, the SPLM/A legal counsel pleaded that the “existing Upper Nile (Unity State)/Kordofan boundary provided a perfectly logical way to draw the boundary” in a manner that the ABC has done. Therefore, the SPLM/A and its lawyers were not under any impression or illusion that these oilfields are part of Unity State in Upper Nile, until they lost the oilfields in the Abyei ruling, that is when they begin to think about it belonging to Unity State—a rather reactionary move born out of confusions.

In a press statement, the SPLM/A head in National Assembly, Atem Garang is reported to have claimed that the movement is willing to take the dispute of these oilfields back to the arbitration in The Hague so that it is resolved on whether they belong to the South or North. If that is the case, the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum has its work cut out for them. The NCP will need no evidence other than the ABC report and SPLM/A argument presented at the Abyei arbitrations, which assert forcefully that the area belong to Kordofan in general and Abyei in particular. Some of those extensive evidences include witness testimonies of Ngok Dinka claiming to be originally from Heglig, also known as Miding in Dinka language. Given that the residents of Unity State are Nuers, witnesses are going to be hard to come by in supporting the SPLM/A new and reversed claim that these oilfields and villages with Dinka names belong to Unity State, when the Ngok Dinka who laid claims on the area could not get it.

When the SPLM/A referred the Abyei dispute to the international arbitration, for some strange reasons, they got all excited and overconfident that they were going to win the case. One wonders where they got such false confidence from when this case is that complicated, sensitive and with high stakes involved. Their overconfidence, apparently for wrong reasons, can partly explain their instant reactions of jubilations on the day the ruling was handed down and hence, lack of logical and concrete strategies in dealing with the aftermath of the losses and implications of the ruling.

Now that the SPLM/A is contemplating on South-North border demarcation and trying to tie the Abyei ruling into that process without necessarily understanding the implications, they are in for more surprises, perhaps more disappointments than the Abyei ruling. The Abyei drawn boundaries have far greater implications to South-North boundaries than to Abyei itself, because the boundaries are drawn in straight lines. The Abyei original boundaries had never been straight lines and they should never have been drawn in straight lines. Since, they are now; they dangerously set precedents such that most of the South-North boundaries are going to be forced to run on straight lines. This is further complicated by the fact that Abyei is going to be considered in this exercise as the deep north, and its southern boundary is the farthest north South Sudan can exceed.

In other words, the Abyei ruling may have already inadvertently drawn the South-North boundaries, where Abyei most southern tip is going to be the northern boundaries of South Sudan, moreover in straight lines. If there is anywhere the ABC and PCA clearly overstepped on their authorities, it is in the process where both tried to determine the boundaries of Abyei, then they also ended up determining the South-North boundaries, an exercise beyond their mandates. As far as the South-North boundaries are concerned, it is only the ABC and PCA who have definitively determined where those boundaries lay in relations to Abyei. The Khartoum NCP is not even going to bother in locating the 1956 map as evident to determine the South-North boundaries, because of the precedents set by the Abyei ruling, which put the South Sudan map in unique proximity in relation to north. Of course, since Abyei is not an island, there would have been no any other way the ABC or PCA would have determined the Abyei boundaries without added implications of South-North boundaries in the process. But, did anyone ever thought that delimiting of the Abyei boundaries (by ABC or PCA) should have been done concurrently with that of South-North boundaries to avoid any such implications—just as the referendum for Abyei is suppose to run concurrently with that of the South Sudan?

Well, it may already be too late to think of this option of delimiting the Abyei boundaries in tandem with that of South-North boundaries. The burden now remains on the losers, the SPLM/A and people of South Sudan to yet come with better strategies to recover what they lost and then retain what they already possess. The current strategy of trying to annex to Unity State what was once believed to be Abyei, is debunked. It appears, with a precedent already set where maps are running on straight lines, and Abyei southern border being the most northern proximity South Sudan can go, there are greater potential and danger that South Sudan will lose some of its territories in South-North border demarcation.

Steve Paterno is the author of The Rev. Fr. Saturnino Lohure, A Romain Catholic Priest Turned Rebel. He can be reached at [email protected]