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South Sudan heads to polls amid renewed violence in Abyei

South Sudan heads to polls amid renewed violence in Abyei. At least fourteen dead in Tunisian employment protests. Eta declares “permanent and general” ceasefire.
Josephine Whitaker
11 January 2011

An estimated quarter of south Sudan’s registered voters yesterday went to the polls to vote on the future of their homeland, which most believe will soon lead to the division of Africa’s largest country.

Amid tales of long queues and jubilation in the south, the week-long ballot is the culmination of a peace process that has been going on for more than five years. The key to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord, which brought an end to almost two decades of civil war in Sudan, the referendum in south Sudan is likely to change the face of Africa forever.

Despite clashes in south Sudan in the days leading up to the referendum, there have been no reports of violence in the south over the last 48 hours. Indeed, most reports indicate that polling is going smoothly, confounding critics who expected this referendum to be a repeat of the logistical nightmare that was last April’s presidential elections.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has promised to respect the outcome. Although he campaigned strongly for national unity, Bashir has been making conciliatory statements over the last few weeks. For the north, the referendum is almost certain to mean losing a quarter of its landmass and almost all of its oil wells. Given Bashir’s already dubious human rights record, the potential for the referendum to reignite tensions between north and south is real.

Salva Kiir, leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and President of southern Sudan, made a speech in which he noted that, if the referendum is successfully completed this week, all those who died in the civil war will not have died in vain. Describing the day as a “very historic moment the people of South Sudan have been waitied for,” Kiir called for calm and patience during voting.

The openSecurity verdict: While voting in the south has remained peaceful, the situation in contested Abyei province looks grim. Reports of fighting between Dinka Ngok tribespeople and Misseriya nomads, loosely affiliated with south and north respectively, indicate that at least nine people have been killed over the last three days.

Located on the north-south dividing line, Abyei was also supposed to hold its own referendum this week, in which residents would decide whether to join the south in secession or remain part of the north. However, disagreement between Abyei’s local leaders on voter registration has delayed the province’s poll. The dispute centres on whether the MIsseriya, an Arab nomadic group that are resident in the province for just a few months a year, should be eligible to vote in Abyei’s poll. Inevitably, leaders in Juba and Khartoum back opposing sides in Abyei. Bashir’s National Congress party insists on the Misseriya’s right to vote in the referendum, while the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement argues that only the Dinka Ngok should be able to vote. The Misseriya have accused the SPLM of planning to unilaterally annex Abyei. Hassan Musa, leader of one section of the Misseriya, said “they (the SPLM) should forget a dream to hold a referendum which does not include our participation.” 

Accounts of what has been happening in Abyei over the last three days are conflicted, so it is not possible to say definitively what has been going on. Al-Sahafah, a Khartoum-based newspaper reported on Sunday that 49 people were killed and dozens wounded in the clashes, although there has been no UN confirmation of this. According to the report, nine of those killed were Dinka Ngok tribespeople, while the rest were police or Misseriya. According to Deng Arop Kuol, Abyei’s chief administrator, Arab Misseriya fighters attacked Maker village at around midday local time on Friday, leaving one dead. While these attacks have apparently been confirmed by an un-named UN official, Misseriya official Mohamed Omer al-Ansary insisted to Reuters that his people had been “ambushed” by southern soldiers moving soldiers onto traditional grazing land.

Regardless of the true version of events, the current situation in Abyei should serve to remind anyone interested in what will happen to Sudan after the referendum of the multiple loose ends that will not be tied up by the plebiscite. While it is commendable that the referendum is going ahead, when many doubted that things would evern get this far, it will not be smooth sailing from here on. The simple fact of the referendum is not quite enough to ensure a secure future for Sudan.

At the simplest level, what the CPA – and therefore the referendum – lacks is a framework for envisaging Sudan after the plebiscite. At the moment, south Sudan is voting on the future of a state that currently lacks borders. There is currently no agreement on serious issues such as how Sudan’s international debt will be divided, or how the nation’s oil wealth will be shared. Both of these issues have the potential to reignite conflict. Finally, there is Abyei, and the broader problem of ethnic tensions along the north-south border and in western Darfur. No clear steps to address these problems yet. Leaders in both north and south Sudan must re-commit themselves to resolving outstanding issues after this week’s vote, regardless of the outcome.

Eta declares “permanent and general” ceasefire

The Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna, more commonly known as Eta, has today announced that it is declaring a permanent, unilateral ceasefire that will be verifiable to independent observers.

The group, founded in 1968 to fight for independence for the Basque region of Spain and France, has “decided to declare a permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community,” according to a statement published on the group’s website today. Eta called for a process of “dialogue and negotiation” leading to a vote amongst Basques on their future, as well as for formal recognition of a right to independence for Basques.

The statement comes after a temporary ceasefire declared in September, which was brushed off by Spanish authorities as it fell short of declaring a definitive end to violent attacks. Official reaction to this latest announcement has been fairly muted, with the Spanish government yet to respond. Eta is believed to have been seriously weakened over the last few months by a series of raids by French and Spanish security forces. It is also widely accepted that Eta’s influence over Spanish Basques has declined greatly over the last few years, as the group has grown out of touch with the realities in the region. However, previous permanent ceasefires have been called by Eta, only later to be broken by renewed violence. The most recent ‘permanent’ ceasefire in 2006 ended with a fatal bombing of Barajas airport, Madrid.

At least fourteen dead in Tunisian employment protests

At least fourteen people have been killed in protests in Tunisia after security forces opened fire on demonstrators in interior Tunisia, according to government officials. Opposition and media outlets put the death toll closer to twenty, with an unknown number of people injured.

Those killed were protesting rising unemployment and living costs in the towns of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb, in Tunisia’s comparatively poor interior. According to witnesses, police resorted to using live ammunition after using water cannons to try and disperse protestors who had set fire to government buildings. The government has acknowledged that police had fired on demonstrators, but insists that security forces acted in “legitimate self defence.”

The deaths this weekend come after weeks of unrest and violence in this usually stable North African country, which began in December last year. Although Tunisia was ranked as Africa’s most competitive nation by the World Economic Forum for the current year, unemployment, especially amongst well-educated young people, continues to rise.

Last month, 26-year old Mohammed Bouazizi triggered a wave of protests by setting himself on fire after security forces confiscated fruit and vegetables he was selling illegally to support himself. Bouazizi died last week from his injuries in Sidi Bouzid, where many of last month’s protests have taken place. Since Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December there has been at least one more suicide protest. As protests have spread across Tunisia, there has been a rising number of reports of repression and police brutality. An estimated 95 percent of Tunisia’s lawyers held a strike last week, demanding an end to police violence against peaceful protestors.  

The government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, described by a former Human Rights Watch North Africa researcher as “very dictatorial” and in power since 1988, is widely seen as intolerant of dissent and has a poor human rights record.

Some commentators believe the protests in Tunisia inspired demonstrations about rising food prices in neighbouring Algeria, which left five dead over the weekend. The Algerian government was this weekend forced to increase its subsidies on basic foodstuffs in response to protests.

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