- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

The leaders of northern Sudan are trying to “extort” incentives from the Obama administration in exchange for holding an on-time referendum on the fate of Abyei, a senior southern Sudanese leader said ahead of a key meeting to break an impasse over the oil-rich province.

In an interview with The Washington Times on Saturday, Pagan Amum, secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), accused Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) of adopting a “pirate’s mentality.”

“The NCP is trying to extort from America and Southern Sudan,” Mr. Amum said.

According to terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Sudan must hold two referendums on Jan. 9 - one to determine whether the south will secede, the other to give the people of Abyei the choice to go with the south if it breaks away, as is widely expected.

Leaders from the north and south are at loggerheads over Abyei issues that include distribution of oil revenue, demarcation of borders, security and citizenship rights.

Lt. Gen. Bashir and Salva Kiir, president of the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan, are scheduled to hold talks on Abyei on Monday.

Western officials are concerned that the Abyei referendum will not be held on time.

“The referendum [on Abyei] is being held hostage by the NCP. They are demanding some ransom from the United States of America and from the south,” Mr. Amum said.

The Obama administration has offered to take Sudan off a State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July if the Sudanese government holds a credible and on-time referendum on southern independence and implements all post-referendum agreements.

Removal from the terrorism list has been a long-standing demand of Gen. Bashir's government.

Speaking at a U.N. Security Council ministerial meeting on Sudan in New York last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held out the prospect of a “dramatically improved relationship” between the U.S. and Sudan. She said this could include an end to U.S. sanctions, efforts to provide international debt relief to Sudan and increased trade and investment.

Mr. Amum accused the NCP of adopting an “immoral position.”

“They have signed the CPA. … They are obliged to implement the protocol,” he said. “This parasitic and pirate mentality is what we are dealing with now. I am happy that the government of the United States of America is offering incentives to the NCP to be able to release the hostage - Abyei.”

Mr. Amum was in Alexandria, Va., where he visited the voter registration office for the Southern Sudanese diaspora in the U.S. Registration began on Tuesday.

Under the terms of the CPA, the referendum can be delayed if both parties agree. However, Mr. Amum said the decision to hold a vote on Abyei is “not negotiable.”

He described Abyei as the Ngok Dinka tribe’s land and said the nomadic Misseriya must have nothing to do with the determination of its future.

He said the south would guarantee the Misseriya’s right to graze their livestock in Abyei and pass through the region on their way to fresh pastures.

Western officials say preparations for the Abyei referendum have fallen behind schedule and a delay in the vote likely would result in a spike in tensions between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya.

Franco Edward, a member of the Ngok Dinka and former resident of Abyei who traveled to Alexandria over the weekend to register for the referendum, described the Misseriya as guests who are now trying to take Abyei away from the Ngok Dinka.

“We shouldn’t have to vote twice; Abyei is a part of the south,” Mr. Edward said.

Southern Sudanese leaders have asked the U.N. Security Council to establish a buffer zone along the north-south border and deploy peacekeepers to prevent skirmishes and a return to the civil war that tore apart the country for two decades.

The International Organization for Migration is assisting the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission to conduct voter registration in eight countries.

In the U.S., three voter registration centers - in Alexandria; Omaha, Neb.; and Phoenix - have been set up for the southern Sudanese diaspora.

On Saturday, groups of enthusiastic southerners - some who had carpooled in vans from as far away as Ohio - arrived at the center in Alexandria to collect their voter registration cards.

“The diaspora is a very important constituency for Southern Sudan to rebuild itself,” Mr. Amum said.

Agnes Oswaha, a representative of the government of Southern Sudan, said just a trickle of people arrived at the center during the week but more turned up over the weekend.

She said the biggest challenge for most had been getting to the center.

“People have traveled long distances to be here. They feel it is their national duty,” Ms. Oswaha said.

Standing outside the center, the tip of his right forefinger stained with ink - proof that he had registered to vote - Ring Chan declared he would be voting for  “my freedom” on Jan. 9.

Mr. Chan, who fled the war in Sudan and now lives in Ohio, said he would consider returning to his homeland if the south secedes. This determination was echoed by Jackson Kuol and William Aleu, who happily posed for photographs with their voter registration cards.

Yohana Roy, who also traveled from Ohio, said that since the signing of the CPA, Mr. Bashir[‘]s government has done nothing to make unity attractive to southerners.

“Now it is our turn to choose freedom,” Mr. Roy said.