- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Obama administration is stepping up efforts to press northerners and southerners in Sudan to reach a deal on an oil-rich province, warning that a failure to do so will lead to instability.

The push comes with a little more than two weeks to go before Sudanese vote in a referendum expected to result in the birth of a new nation in North Africa.

Southern Sudanese voters will decide in a weeklong vote scheduled to begin Jan. 9 whether they want the south to become an independent nation.

The international community is worried about the fate of Christian and animist southerners living in the north and Muslim northerners living in the south.

The vote is one of the conditions spelled out in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Sudanese and U.S. officials are confident the vote will be held on time. However, the fate of a second referendum, to decide whether Abyei province will go with the south if it secedes, has been put in limbo by intransigent positions adopted by the SPLM in the south and Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) in the north.

A senior U.S. official, who discussed U.S. efforts on background, said the administration is pushing hard for a Jan. 9 settlement on Abyei. It is urging parties, at the very least, to reach an interim understanding by that date.

“The situation we don’t want is the residents of southern Sudan going out and voting for a week and the residents of Abyei feeling that they have been disenfranchised and then taking matters into their own hands,” the official said.

“If we can’t have a referendum, then what we want is a peaceful outcome so that the people of Abyei are assured of their rights and that their interests are protected,” he said.

President Obama has taken a personal interest in ensuring the success of the administration’s efforts.

In a phone conversation with Sudanese First Vice President Salva Kiir last week, Mr. Obama affirmed the U.S. commitment to a peaceful, on-time referendum on southern Sudanese self-determination.

Mr. Obama urged Mr. Kiir, who is also president of the semiautonomous Government of Southern Sudan, to “engage seriously with the National Congress Party in the coming days to resolve the outstanding issues related to Comprehensive Peace Agreement implementation and take actions to prevent outbreaks of violence,” the White House said in a statement.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. also spoke with Sudanese Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha last week and emphasized the importance of “Sudanese commitment to finding a negotiated path forward on critical outstanding Comprehensive Peace Agreement and post-referendum issues,” according to the statement.

However, the U.S. official said he was not confident a referendum on Abyei will be held because the NCP and the SPLM have until now been focused on a negotiation on territorial and political rights.

The northerners want to guarantee political rights for the nomadic Misseriya tribe that migrates through Abyei with livestock, while the southerners want to ensure ownership of the land by the Ngok Dinka tribe.

“At some point, a political bargain needs to be struck,” the official said.

Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, said at a recent panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace that though these issues are challenging, they can be resolved.

“Abyei has been, so far, the most contentious and challenging issue,” Mr. Mohamed said.

Southerners accuse the NCP of holding Abyei hostage.

“The NCP is looking for ransom from everybody,” Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of mission of the Government of Southern Sudan in Washington, said in a phone interview.

The southerners want Abyei to be included in a package of post-referendum issues to be resolved collectively. They say the north is not taking negotiations seriously.

“Right now, they think a miracle will happen and the unity of the country will be preserved,” Mr. Gatkuoth said, adding, “once the south secedes, the north will know that the reality of the separation has come. … There will be no more daydreaming.”

In the absence of a referendum, the southerners have suggested that Abyei be transferred to the south through a presidential decree.

“This is the only way to resolve this quickly, so that the Ngok Dinka don’t feel betrayed by the parties,” Mr. Gatkuoth said.

The question of Abyei is not as black and white as is being painted by many in the south.

Beneath the surface lie many other complex issues, including the question of citizenship, borders, security and oil revenue, that Western officials say cannot be resolved through a referendum.

“There is a whole host of issues, but that constellation of issues has not been aligned such that we have a final agreement on Abyei,” the senior U.S. official said.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki is leading the international community’s efforts in Sudan.

The Obama administration is working with Mr. Mbeki to put forward a combination of choices for the parties to discuss. Each side is also being encouraged to identify their sets of red lines so that non-germane issues can be whittled away and focus put on core issues.

“When we get to that point, then we can enter into a serious final negotiation into the status of this area,” the senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration has, meanwhile, held out the promise of normalized relations between Washington and Khartoum if the Sudanese government fully implements the provisions of the CPA.

It has also offered to take Sudan off a list of state sponsors of terrorism. “This has been an irritant in the bilateral relationship,” the U.S. official said, referring to the state sponsor of terrorism listing.

Delisting is not linked to a referendum on Abyei being held, but to both parties reaching an agreement on a resolution of the disputed area.

“We have incentivized them so that in July 2011, there is a way forward for their own economic and political survival,” the U.S. official said. The CPA expires in July of next year.

“We have shown them the light at the end of the tunnel, but they only get to that light after separation,” he added.

The challenges of holding the referendum pale in comparison with those that lie in the days after the vote.

Southern unity will be tested by the disparate tribes that inhabit the region, the Government of Southern Sudan’s capacity to run an effective state and a deal with the north on sharing oil revenue.

As many as 80,000 southerners living in the north have already crossed into the south.

A Western official based in southern Sudan said while there has not been a mass exodus, many people are returning to the south with the intention of living there permanently.

The international community is trying to determine whether “pull or push factors” are driving this migration.

While some states in southern Sudan have offered relocation allowances and free transportation in a bid to attract southerners, inflammatory statements by NCP officials, including Lt. Gen. Bashir, are viewed as potential “push” factors.

In his call with Mr. Taha, Mr. Biden underscored ongoing U.S. concern about “engagement with armed proxies and encouraged the Sudanese government to be reassuring and responsible in its messages and policies toward southerners in the north,” the White House said.

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