“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: the Future of Abyei

It has now been six and a half years since the people of Abyei should have decided their future.

Abyei, an oil-rich region situated between Sudan and South Sudan, was due to have a self-determination referendum on the 9 January 2011; the day South Sudan decided to become an independent nation. However, disagreements between Sudan and South Sudan regarding voter eligibility has meant that the people of Abyei are still waiting to hold an official vote.

These disagreements centre on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe who spend a portion of the year in Abyei are eligible to vote. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stating that only the Ngok Dinka tribe, and those permanently residing in Abyei for a period of 3 years, may vote, the government of Sudan failed to accept these terms.

As the delay continued, the Ngok Dinka General Conference conducted what was termed a “People’s Referendum”: it was an unofficial vote but 98% of registered Ngok Dinka voters participated, of which 99.9% voted to join South Sudan. Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the African Union and international community, rejected the outcome of the referendum but both Khartoum and Juba have laid claim to Abyei.

Since the Peoples Referendum, South Sudan has descended into chaos, while Bashir’s grip on Sudan appears to be strengthening. With chaos to the South and oppression to the North, the decision may not be as simple as it was a few years ago – Abyei and its people are clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The Rock – Bashir’s Agenda

Al Bashir, one of the only acting heads of state to be indicted by the ICC, is well known for running an authoritarian regime, with human rights continually being abused. Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so. Bashir and his allies have turned Sudan into what feels like an impenetrable rock.

“Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so.”

Being part of South Kordofan would be highly undesirable for the people of Abyei. In a recent film, titled “the Heart of Nuba”, there is damning evidence of the government bombing its own civilians in the Nuba Mountains, a region in South Kordofan. Ngok Dinka links to the SPLA during the civil war would make them targets of the government of Khartoum.

The actions and rhetoric of the Sudanese government suggests that even if the vote resulted in Abyei joining the South, they might not allow it to secede peacefully.

This poses two important questions:

  1. Does South Sudan have the ability to defend Abyei?
  2. Does the international community have the political will to protect Abyei?

With internal violence engulfing the state, it is unlikely that the government of South Sudan will be able to protect Abyei while trying to bring its own situation under control.

With South Sudan not being in a position to protect Abyei, the second question about – whether the international community has the political will to protect Abyei – is significant.

The EU is working with Sudan and surrounding African nations to reduce the number of refugees reaching Europe via Libya. Sudan is central to the policy which casts doubt over the political will to intervening to protect Abyei from the government of Sudan. Opinion in Washington on how to deal with Sudan appears to be changing. President Obama’s decision to partially lift US sanctions on Sudan in January 2017 was a surprise to many and signalled a significant shift in the relationship between Khartoum and Washington. However, President Trump’s executive order banning Sudanese nationals from traveling to the US suggests otherwise. The Trump administration sees Sudan as a threat and an ally in the fight against terrorism, yet “putting America first” cancels out any chance of a military intervention to protect Abyei. Trumps foreign policy focus in the region is countering ISIS and Islamic terrorism, outside of that intervention appears to be out of the question. Putting America first means putting Abyei last.

Therefore, it is likely that the African Union (AU) would have to resolve the situation. This would allow the AU to showcase African solutions for African problems, but could also run into issues of political will amongst member states. It is difficult to fathom circumstances where a positive case would be made for AU intervention in Abyei outside of the current UN peacekeeping mission. Intervention would destabilise the already fragile region. The AU would also lose its role as an independent broker of peace in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile which could usher the return of war between rebel groups and the government.

 The Hard Place – South Sudan’s Civil War

Clearly if the vote had been officially conducted in 2011, with all the hope and optimism surrounding the chance to create a new independent nation, Abyei would be part of South Sudan. Yet the dynamics of the decision have changed.

Three years on from the unofficial “People’s Referendum”, South Sudan is descending into chaos. The UN recently warned of a potential genocide similar to the one experienced by Rwanda. South Sudan’s civil war is being waged along ethnic lines between the Dinka and the Nuer. Violence is orchestrated by President Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer. The Ngok Dinka are the majority in Abyei, a group with connections to the Dinka in South Sudan and therefore a vote to join the South could put them at risk of being embroiled in the ethnic conflict. Both government and rebel fighters have been known to deliberately target civilians based on ethnicity.

South Sudan is experiencing problems in functioning as a state due to the ongoing violence. Famine is a major problem, as well as inflation.

It appears that the fighting in South Sudan is set to continue, unless both sides make an effort to reconcile. For Abyei this is distressing, as joining South Sudan would mean becoming part of another civil war.

 The future  

Much has changed in the six and a half years since Abyei was due to hold its referendum. Despite the violence to the South, it is hard to imagine that a future result would be different to the People’s Referendum of 2013, due to the experience Abyei has had and could potentially have with the north. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to the longest running civil war in Africa and the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set out clearly the terms and participants of a plebiscite in Abyei. The political will to hold an official referendum based on these conditions must be found so that the people of Abyei can exercise their hard-won battle for self-determination.

By Ben Jackson, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant

What Difference Does a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Make?

As Ján Figel starts his second year as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union, the last 12 months of his time in this new mandate show the respect for this role that has developed amongst sceptics and the potential for his role going forward.

In under 12 months Mr Figel has raised the profile of FoRB as a human rights priority for the EU, highlighting the important role religion and belief, including the right not to believe, plays in the daily experience of millions across the globe.

Early on in his first term the Special Envoy said “FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” At the end of his first year, there has been a visible widening of EU engagement on this sensitive human right, as part of its dialogue and development policies.

“FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” – Ján Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Sudan is one of several countries with poor human rights records which Mr Figel has visited in his first year. Such visits open up opportunities for a senior EU diplomat to engage with religious leaders and religious communities to address societal hostilities, in addition to working with government officials.

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The Impact of Sudan’s Identity War on Freedom of Religion or Belief

In June 2016, CSW joined a number of African and international civil society organisations in signing and delivering a letter marking the fifth anniversary of the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, to 10 Downing Street. The letter urged the Prime Minister to use the UK’s considerable influence to ensure that international human rights and humanitarian law are respected.
Sudan protest
Protesters walked from the Sudanese Embassy in London to Downing Street to deliver the letter. Among those taking part, it was striking to see veiled and unveiled Sudanese women from the Nuba Mountains, people from other parts of South Kordofan and Darfur, young children, and men in traditional Nuba dress united in calling for an end to all conflicts in Sudan.

This demonstration of unity in diversity was compelling, as was the cry for peace and freedom for all Sudanese citizens. The repression of religious and ethnic diversity in Sudan has been used repeatedly by President al Bashir’s government to sustain his 27-year rule, and what was clearly expressed on that overcast Saturday afternoon in London was the longing for an end to conflicts that serve to perpetuate a divisive government and for a lasting peace in which people can live side by side without fear, regardless of their cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious differences.

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Church Demolitions Highlight Increase in FoRB Violations in Sudan

Sudan church demolished sized

Sudan: Lutheran Church destroyed, October 2015

Both during and after the plebiscite for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, President al Bashir stated repeatedly that Sudan’s new constitution will be based 100% on Shari’a and that the ethnically and religiously diverse nation will be Arabic and Islamic.

For Sudan’s Christian community, an outworking of this explicit promise to erode religious and ethnic diversity has been the demolition churches, at the same time as permission to apply for new church building licences is withheld. The targeting of places of worship is just one example of ongoing repression of Christians and other religious minorities in the country.

A case in point: on 21 October 2015, a church building in Omdurman that was used by the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church was demolished. In the same week, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gadaref, East Sudan was burned down by unknown arsonists.

Legal and Political Context

The government of Sudan has repeatedly used the independence of South Sudan as an excuse to pursue an accelerated agenda of Islamization and Arabization. In 2013, the Ministry for Guidance and Endowments, which oversees religious affairs in the country, announced that no new church licences would be issued due to a lack of worshipers and an increase in abandoned churches after South Sudan seceded. This policy was reiterated in July 2014, just weeks after Sudan was the target of a successful international campaign to free Meriam Ibrahim, a young, pregnant mother who was sentenced to death for apostasy. The government’s defiant statement appeared to be in response to international pressure for Sudan to protect the rights of its religious minorities. Once again the government justified its policy as being a response to the changes in religious demography since South Sudanese Christians left Sudan in 2010.

Confiscation and demolition of places of worship

While the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments stopped issuing church licences, local government (particularly in Khartoum and Omdurman) continued confiscating and demolishing church properties, ostensibly to make way for development projects.

This was the case for the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church in Omdurman; local officials informed church leaders the building was listed for demolition on 20 October due to development work in the area. After appealing to the State Governor, church leaders were assured the building would not be affected.

However, it was demolished the next day, while a mosque less than 100 meters away on the same plot of land was left standing. This is not the first time a Christian place of worship and a Muslim place of worship have been treated differently.

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