JUBA, Sudan—Negotiations resumed today in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum between top officials from Sudan’s north and south. These leaders, representing two regions of the same country, will soon begin relating to each other as diplomats from two different nations. That’s precisely the reason for the current talks, which will broadly determine the nature of relations between Sudan’s north and south after the latter declares independence this July (the early results of the referendum lean overwhelmingly in favor of secession, but official announcements are not due for another two weeks).
Among other issues, the two regions will need to determine how to divide $38 billion worth of debt—much of it acquired by the Khartoum government while it waged war on the south—and whether minority populations (namely southerners who live in northern Sudan and northerners who live in the south) will enjoy any citizenship rights after July. But the hottest topic on the table by far is Abyei, a contested border zone sometimes described as “Sudan’s ‘Kashmir.’” While southerners voted in their weeklong referendum earlier this month, clashes broke out in Abyei between armed elements of two populations who uneasily share this land. The residents of Abyei had been promised their own self-determination vote to take place simultaneously with the southern referendum, but this vote was not organized due to a dispute between Khartoum and Juba over who counted as a “resident” of Abyei. Earlier this week at an address to the parliament in the southern capital, southern president Salva Kiir urged patience to the Ngok Dinka people of Abyei. According to AFP:
“It is very unfortunate for us to lose innocent lives again and again while we are on the verge of having peace,” said Kiir, who added that he was “optimistic” about agreeing a solution with President Omar al-Bashir.
“But I would ask the people of Abyei not to take any unilateral decision to join the south, and to give me a chance to find a peaceful settlement with my brother President Omar al-Bashir,” Kiir said, addressing the south Sudan legislative assembly for its first day of work since the referendum.
When I visited Abyei a couple weeks ago, while the referendum vote was underway in the south, it was clear that people there badly want to join the south but fear they may be left out in the cold by the southern leadership, some of whom hail from Abyei but have been forced to accept the “bigger picture” (and the priority of southern independence). Promises made to the people of Abyei—both the Ngok Dinka who claim native rights to the land and the Arab Misseriya who seasonally graze through the area—have been broken many times in the past. Now, with the south just months away from gaining its hard-won independence and the north bracing for the consequences of losing its most resource-rich region, it seems unlikely that the current talks in Khartoum will reach a conclusion that satisfies all of the interested parties—the political leaders in Juba and Khartoum, the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya on the ground in the Abyei area, and even the international community who has thrown a great deal of diplomatic resources at the “Abyei problem” with little positive results to date. The real unknown is whether or not the outcome of the Abyei talks will spark more problems on the ground.