April 23, 2021

Abyei: Déjà vu?

For the Pulitzer Center, Abyei, Sudan

Published on November 2, 2010

Abyei has always been a special case. In a united Sudan its borderland position led writers to infuse it with a somewhat romanticized notion of a bridge between two cultures. But with southerners pressing for autonomy since Sudanese independence, there has been ever-increasing pressure to decide whether, in a two-Sudan system, Abyei would belong to north or south.

The first decision-forcing event in this regard came with the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, which brought Sudan’s first civil war to a close and granted southerners semi-autonomy within a largely self-governing Southern Region. Did Abyei fall under its jurisdiction? Those negotiating the agreement couldn’t agree, and so it was determined that the people of Abyei would get to decide. However, their chance for self-determination was sidelined and in 1983 war resumed; Abyei’s status remained unresolved.

Fast-forward to 2003-2004, and those negotiating what would become the Comprehensive Peace Agreement were faced again with the same challenge. Even after it was agreed that in 2011 southerners would get a self-determination referendum on whether they wanted to become an independent nation, the Abyei question remained a sticking point. And the oil wealth in the area infused the question with additional tension. No longer was it just a question of whether north or south would get the fertile land in Abyei should the country split, it was a question of who would benefit from the resources that lay beneath it.

U.S. envoy to the negotiations, Jack Danforth, along with long-time Sudan hand, Roger Winter, got the parties to move past the Abyei stumbling block by proposing that on the same day southerners voted in their referendum, the people of Abyei would get their own referendum on whether to be part of north or south. For the second time in history the people of Abyei were promised self-determination. They are waiting to see whether this time they will get it.

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