Last week, the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal, sitting in The Hague, made a technical decision on the status of the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission, which translates into defining the boundaries between Abyei district and the rest of Kordofan. The decision was awaited with much anticipation and some had feared that it would occasion a new conflict between the NCP and the national armed forces and the SPLM/SPLA. That hasn’t happened. The decision appears to be not only legally sound but also politically astute, in that it accommodates the principal interests of both the NCP and SPLM and allows them both to claim victory.
The arbitration ruling involved drawing a line on a map. The fact that it appears to be a relatively well-drawn line, balancing the concerns of potentially opposing parties, should not distract us from the basic fact that any line will be a problem for the people who live in the vicinity. The facts of land use and livelihoods, habitation and cohabitation, cannot be reduced to a single irreducible line in any simple way. Some boundary lines may be less bad than others, but all divide people. There are creative ways of lessening the impacts of administrative and political boundaries, including national frontiers. The arrangements on both sides of the Denmark-Germany boundary are an exemplary case of accommodating the mixed identities and differing political allegiances of the communities who live in a border zone that has been fluid and disputed over centuries. Arrangements for common citizenship rights, free access to resources and transit rights for pastoralists, etc., can all reduce the sting of a new border. But no arrangement can eliminate the traumas of redrawn boundaries entirely. We see this in the continuing fears and worries of the Missiriya and Ngok Dinka who live in and around Abyei.
The Abyei ruling and its implementation are widely seen as fore-shadowing the bigger challenges that will arise when the southerners exercise their right of self-determination in just eighteen months’ time. One of the lessons of Abyei arbitration is that drawing boundaries and partitioning states is not just a matter for political leaders, lawyers and sovereign authorities–it is a people’s matter too.
There is a desperate need for the Sudanese people from all parts of the country to discuss–as citizens–what the exercise in self-determination will mean for them. The matter is too important to be left to political leaders. Whatever happens in 2011, the Sudanese people will need to continue to live together as neighbours. The best preparation for exercising and implementing self-determination is to conduct a national dialogue involving everyone. Only southerners will vote in the referendum. But southerners need to hear the views of others, and the outcome is a concern for all.
If the southerners’ decision is to remain within a single Sudan under something resembling the current ‘one country two systems’ framework, then such a dialogue is necessary to establish Sudan’s long-awaited permanent national constitution. If the decision is to secede, then all the citizens of greater Sudan have an even greater need to talk through the challenges of a peaceful, orderly and consensual transition to the new order.