Much of the tension regarding the upcoming Sudan referendum centers on a small, critical border area called Abyei.
There are, in fact, two referenda planned for January 9th, 2011, one on whether southern Sudan will secede from the north, and one which will determine whether Abyei, a strategically important oil-producing region, will become part of the north or the south. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement granted Abyei residents the right to self-determination, however, there is still confusion regarding the residence status of the tribes that use the land.
The nomadic Misseriya Arab ethnic group travels to Abyei during the dry season for grazing purposes, while the Ngok Dinka tribe lives there year round, subsisting on livestock and agriculture. In the past there was conflict between the two groups as the Misseriya sided with the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Ngok Dinka allied with the southern rebels. Since the Misseriya do not live in Abyei on a permanent basis, it has been a matter of contention whether they should be allowed to vote in the upcoming Abyei referendum. However, concerned that Abyei will become part of the north in the absence of Misseriya votes, jeopardizing their grazing rights and access to land and water, the Misseriya group has threatened to resort to violence if its people are not allowed to participate in the referendum. (For more detailed explanation of the conflict, see the Christian Science Monitor.)
At a press conference in October, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha said
The Abyei referendum cannot be conducted unless an agreement is reached on the outstanding issues in a way that satisfies the two tribes of Misseriya and Ngok Dinka, and we hope that the talks between the two sides would come out with a satisfactory agreement.
However, according to Reuters, the United States is claiming that the time has run out for there to be a separate referendum on Abyei, and that the issue must be resolved by international arbitration. According to Scott Gration, U.S. Envoy to Sudan, “”I think we’ve passed the opportunity for there to be a poll. It will take a political solution to resolve this issue.”
Already, the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal in the Hague has restructured the boundaries of Abyei, putting two major oil fields and a pipeline into the control of Khartoum, while leaving behind an oil field named Diffra, which is owned by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operation Company, a consortium led by one of China’s state-owned oil companies, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Beijing supported the international arbitration on Abyei, and despite its longterm friendship and business relationship with Khartoum (China imports 71% of Sudan’s oil output) has recently been focusing its efforts on cultivating ties with the south. China has been investing billions of dollars in south Sudan’s oil sector, as well as in construction and engineering. “China stands ready to provide help to the south within its capacity, no matter what the changes will be in the situation here,” said Du Yanling, director-general of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.
Considering the extent of China’s investment, in both north and south Sudan, Chinese officials are primarily concerned that warfare will disrupt their business activities. Given that both sides have been purchasing arms, and the fact that 43% of Sudanese people believe that armed conflict is imminent, Beijing is hoping that an ethnic dispute in Abyei doesn’t escalate into something that will hurt its bottom line.