Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir will visit South Sudan next week for talks with President Salva Kiir in a bid to end a territorial dispute over Abyei that has brought the two countries close to war.
During Bashir’s visit, scheduled for Oct. 22, the two presidents will discuss a proposed referendum for the contested border region, which was promised as part of a part of a 2005 peace deal that ended a two-decade civil war, South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said. South Sudan split from the north two years ago after a referendum that was part of the peace accord.
The impasse over Abyei has threatened to derail improving relations between the two neighbors, which agreed in March to restart crude oil exports from South Sudan’s oil fields via pipelines to Port Sudan.
“If we disagree on Abyei and if the dispute is that high, then ultimately the government of Sudan” may find ways of pressuring the south, including blocking the country’s oil exports, Lueth said in an interview in the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
When it became independent, South Sudan took three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil production of 490,000 barrels a day. Its low-sulfur crude, which is prized by Japanese buyers for use as clean-burning power-generation fuel, is pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp.
Abyei is contested by the region’s Ngok Dinka people, who are settled in the area and consider themselves southerners, and Misseriya nomads who herd their cattle south in the dry season and are supported by the government in Khartoum.
The African Union has called for a referendum to be held this month, with only people who reside in the area eligible to vote on which country Abyei belongs to. That proposal is backed by South Sudan and rejected by the north. The failure to agree on referendum laws and set up a joint administration for Abyei probably will delay a vote, Lueth said.
“If the two presidents can agree” to begin the process then “definitely we can run the referendum on Abyei before the end of the year,” he said.
In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague set Abyei’s borders to the area around Ngok Dinka settlements. That largely excluded the Misseriya, who say that as seasonal inhabitants of the area, they should also have the right to vote.