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Abyei's symbolic referendum

In a symbolic referendum, 99.9 percent of voters in the disputed region of Abyei favour joining South Sudan over Sudan.
Last modified: 3 Nov 2013 21:22
Woman waves South Sudan's national flag as she celebrates result of the symbolic referendum in Abyei [Reuters]

Sometimes it is easy to think of "democracy" as a little like the proverbial duck – if it looks like democracy; if it sounds like democracy, then it must be democracy. Except that in Abyei's case, it is not.

Last week, the Ngok Dink,a community in the disputed region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan decided to hold a referendum on which of the two countries they wanted to join.

The vote has long been promised. It was included in the "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" that ended Sudan's civil war in 2005. It was supposed to happen in 2008, again in 2011, and most recently by October 31 this year.

The delays have been over disputes about who should be eligible to take part.

South Sudan insists it should only be "permanent residents" – another way of saying only the Ngok Dinka who are culturally, politically and linguistically tied to Juba.

Sudan says it must include all those who call Abyei "home", another way of insisting that the Misseriya nomads take part. This Arabic-speaking "pro-Khartoum" community spends up to six months of the year in Abyei, grazing cattle on the rich pastures.

With no formal vote in sight, but a host of international tribunals and inquiries supporting their claims, the frustrated Ngok Dinka held their referendum anyway.

It was an impressive display of "democracy": there was a credible registration process, transparent ballot boxes, indelible ink on voters' fingers and an open count. They even accredited two "independent" international observers to monitor the poll and write a report.

The outcome was never in doubt. It was always going to be a landslide in favour of becoming South Sudan's eleventh state, but in the end the result was beyond overwhelming: 99.9 percent. (There's a good chance that most of the 12 people who voted to stay with Khartoum miss-read the ballot paper…)

But this was never really about a democratic referendum, with the open public debate about the choices and their relative merits that the term implies. That kind of unanimity suggests that any kind of debate or dissent was socially and politically impossible, and that anyone who disagreed probably decided it was safer to stay quiet and not vote at all.

Rather, this was a way of publicly stating what the Ngok Dinka want in the strongest possible terms. It was a way of shaming their supporters in Juba, in the UN and the African Union into recognising the outcome of the poll and formally integrating Abyei into the South.

In other words, the process was much less important than the unequivocal declaration of collective political intent.

But the vote was also a huge gamble. In organising the unofficial and so-far unrecognised referendum, the Ngok Dinka risk provoking the Misseriya and Khartoum into fighting what they regard as a rebellion; as a unilateral attempt to break away from Sudan without negotiation.

The fear is not without foundation either. Sudan's second civil war (the one that led to the separation of the South) began in Abyei, and since the war formally ended in 2005, Khartoum has sent its troops in twice. It is currently trying to put down "rebellions" in three other regions of Sudan – Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, so there is a danger that they could do so once more in Abyei.

But for the Ngok Dinka, the risk is worth it. The region's infrastructure is tragically broken. The departing Sudanese troops stripped electricity poles of the cables and burned the region's generator; every public building was looted and destroyed. Rain pours into the roofless schools and weeds grow inside the regional government offices.

Because Abyei is disputed, neither Khartoum nor Juba has put any effort or money into developing the region. It is effectively "stateless". By declaring allegiance to the south, the Ngok Dinka are trying to end that ambiguity and make Juba responsible.

It might not work; it may even make things worse. But for the frustrated people of Abyei, the status quo is no longer an option.