May 2011 - ABYEI
Abyei is a disputed region on the border between north and south Sudan. It currently lies within the north. It is an area of oil fields although increasingly its value lies not in its natural resources, but as a bargaining chip between north and south. In 2005 both sides signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA): who retains Abyei after Southern independence is the most controversial and potentially violent unresolved political issue. The Abyei Protocol of the CPA was intended to address the causes of the conflict but it is as yet to be implemented
Abyei is inhabited by ethnically southern Ngok Dinka and grazed annually by ethnically northern Misseriya. The CPA deemed that the future of Abyei would be determined by a referendum on whether it stay with the north or go with the south. However, the referendum has been delayed due to disputes between both governments on whether or not the Misseriya have a right to vote – the northern NCP (National Congress Party) are in favour because of the Misseriya’s mainly Arab ethnic background, while the south argues that regular migrations do not constitute permanent residency. Additionally, the NCP has attempted to renegotiate the boundaries determined by the CPA, despite initially accepting them.
In May 2008 the 31st Brigade of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) along with armed Misseriya destroyed Abyei town.
Many believe that the south has made a series of compromises over the borders of Abyei, which have been repeatedly reduced following objections from the NCP. In turn, the NCP also insists the Misseriya should have voting rights, guaranteeing that the whole area would fall under northern leadership.
Violence has been escalating in the region since January when the referendum vote was due to be held. There has been a build up of troops and military equipment in the area, evident from the George Clooney- sponsored satellite project Sentinel. Additionally, the north has been widely accused of supporting militias that operate in Abyei.
On Sunday 1st May, clashes broke out between armed elements which were identified by officials in Abyei as belonging to the northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and local police forces. Eight people were killed. January 2011’s Kadugli Agreement stipulated that all troops should withdraw from the area, leaving only Joint Integrated Units (JIU’S). Evidence has come to light that the groups involved in the clashes were not JIUs but SAF soldiers making a strategic claim on Abyei town – they were dressed as JIUs but were carrying IDs that suggested they were SAF. Following these clashes, over the weekend of 7-8 May, an agreement was reached by both sides to withdraw troops from the area starting on 10 May and to be finalised by 17 May.
On 10 May, 4 Zambian UN peacekeepers were shot by unknown gunmen who are believed to be from the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) – a dedicated Islamist militia used by the northern government to crush internal security threats.
On 19 May, South Sudan Army attacked northern forces which were leaving Abyei, accompanied by UN troops. South Sudan’s government has since apologised for the attack.
In retaliation, during the weekend of 21/22 May, northern troops occupied Abyei town, causing the entire population to flee. Widespread looting and burning of the town has been reported, with rumours that northern Arabs will be sent in to populate the area.
The above events confirm aggressive intent on the part of Khartoum, showing that they believe their interests to be best served by refusing to come to an agreement on Abyei. If they believe the international community will prevent southern military intervention in Abyei, then there is little incentive for them to compromise.
The northern government are skilled at creating the impression that both sides are equally responsible/culpable for the non-implementation of the Abyei Protocol, deterring the proper examination of events by the international community and emboldening the government in Khartoum. The international community are being shamefully even-handed, whilst the NCP continually move the goalposts.
If southern independence is disrupted by an NCP military occupation of Abyei, the south is likely to respond in kind. The NCP is using its age-old tactic of systematically arming proxy militias in order to gain political advantage.
The international community must insist that northern troops immediately withdraw from the area and a fair solution sought without violence, otherwise sanctions will be applied. Residents must be allowed to re-occupy the town with security provided by UNMIS (UN Mission in Sudan).
The Abyei Protocol must be implemented and underlying causes addressed. Otherwise a more widespread conflagration becomes a possibility, threatening the entire Sudanese North-South peace process. Years of diplomatic efforts could unravel unless the parties to the CPA are held to their original commitments.
The international community must take a more robust stance with the NCP in order to avoid ongoing and ugly small-scale conflict in this border area.