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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Big fight over a small place

More than two years after Sudan’s southerners voted for a country of their own, some people in lands along the new border with the old rump Sudan remain in limbo. Acuil Akol comes from Abyei, a triangle of contested territory whose residents are mostly Ngok-Dinka, an offshoot of South Sudan’s largest tribe. He and his neighbours were meant to have a vote in 2011 to decide whether to join the south. But rows over who is entitled to vote have delayed it. Tired of waiting, he is now leading efforts to stage an unofficial referendum to “tell the world what we want”.

In the north, Abyei’s status has gained symbolic importance. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president… has defied repeated deadlines set by foreign peacemakers to find a solution, and has ignored a supposedly binding decision in 2009 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands. When the north has felt its control of the territory to be challenged it has sent in its army or allied militias to drive out tens of thousands of the Ngok-Dinka.

The south and its backers sympathise with their Dinka cousins, but were not prepared to delay secession for their sake. Instead they have quietly built up their military presence nearby, while they wait to see if there will be a fight.

Aly Verjee, a regional expert at the Rift Valley Institute, a think-tank, likens Abyei to Cyprus, a divided island state that long soured relations between Greece and Turkey. With neither side in Sudan prepared to admit past mistakes, says Mr Verjee, “there is little the international community can do”. For Abyei’s people, first promised a vote on self-determination in 1972, a home-made referendum may be the best they can hope for.

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