Enough 101: What is the Abyei Area and Why is it Disputed?
Posted by Mollie Zapata on Jan 15, 2013
Editor’s Note: This post is a brief history, intended to provide a contextual background for understanding the complex issues that the Enough Project works on. It is part of the series Enough 101.
The Abyei Area covers 4,000 square miles of desert, farmland, and oil fields located along the ill-defined border between Sudan and South Sudan. Abyei is claimed by both countries and has been a source of conflict in the Sudans for over 50 years.
Abyei’s rich oil reserves make the region economically desirable to both Sudan and South Sudan. Its border location has also led to conflicting ethnic, cultural, and linguistic claims. Resolving the status of the Abyei Area is one of the essential steps Sudan and South Sudan need to take to ensure long-term peace in the region.
The people of Abyei
Abyei is the traditional homeland of the Ngok Dinka, a tribal group with strong ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties to the Dinka of South Sudan. Misseriya herders, members of a northern nomadic Arab tribe, seasonally traverse Abyei and other North-South border areas with their cattle in search of water and pasture in the dry season and to trade goods.
Abyei’s complicated history
At the end of Sudan’s First Civil War (1955-1972), the Addis Ababa Agreement promised residents of Abyei the right to hold a referendum to determine whether they would remain a part of northern Sudan or join the newly formed southern region. However, in 1983, Sudan’s Second Civil War erupted, in part because Sudan’s President Jaafar Nimeiri refused to allow Abyei its referendum.
To end the Second Civil War, northern and southern Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, in 2005.
The CPA included the Abyei Protocol, which planned to replace Abyei district (as it was called when it was a part of South Kordofan state, Sudan) with a new jurisdiction with special administrative status. Abyei would remain under this special administrative status until a final status referendum was conducted. This referendum would allow residents to determine whether Abyei would become part of Sudan or South Sudan. The Abyei Area Referendum was scheduled to occur simultaneous with the southern Sudan Referendum in January 2011. It never happened.
The Abyei Protocol also established a commission to define and demarcate Abyei's border. After agreeing that this border demarcation would be "final and binding," the government of Sudan rejected the commission’s proposal.
The ongoing dispute over Abyei’s borders led to armed clashes between Sudan Armed Forces (the army of the Sudanese government in Khartoum), and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (the army of South Sudan). From 2007-2008 these clashes led to the displacement of 25,000 civilians from Abyei. To end the violence, officials on both sides agreed to arbitrate their dispute over Abyei’s boundaries. In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague redefined Abyei’s boundaries. These boundaries are a continued source of tension, mainly because they cut the South off from the coveted Heglig oil field.
In the lead-up to South Sudan’s independence, all eyes were on Abyei, amid fears that disputes over its status would spark a return to war. Southern Sudanese went to the polls on schedule on January 9, 2011 (where they voted for secession, which led to the birth of South Sudan in July 2011), but Abyei’s vote was postponed due to a disagreement over the definition of the term “resident” of the Abyei Area. Semi-nomadic Misseriya tribes travel through the area seasonally, but South Sudan disputes their actual residency.
In May 2011, Sudan-backed militia and SAF troops invaded the Abyei area. Northern forces swept through the disputed area, destroying civilian property and displacing over 110,000 Ngok Dinka from their traditional homeland. Most of these civilians remain displaced today.
Following the outbreak of violence, the government of Sudan and the South’s ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, signed a temporary peace agreement in June 2011. The agreement calls for a U.N.-backed interim security force of Ethiopian soldiers, the withdrawal of SAF and SPLA troops, and the establishment of a new joint administration. The agreement also preserved the right of the Ngok Dinka and other “residents” of Abyei to vote in a final status referendum, without elaborating further on who exactly would be eligible to vote. This referendum has yet to occur.
Tensions remain high in the Abyei Area. Ngok Dinka who were displaced by the May 2011 violence are returning as Misseriya herders continue to migrate through each dry season. Meanwhile, leaders of Sudan and South Sudan continue to negotiate to determine Abyei’s final status. A September 2012 proposal, presented by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, or AUHIP, provides for a referendum to occur in October 2013. The proposal also identifies the rights that local communities will retain, regardless the outcome of the referendum. South Sudan accepted the proposal, but Sudan rejected it. The African Union Peace and Security Council, or A.U. PSC, subsequently announced its intention to adopt the proposal as final and binding, should the parties not agree.
In early January 2013, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir met and delayed further on an agreement on Abyei’s final status. The longer Abyei’s final status remains unresolved, the greater the potential for further violence in the area and between the two Sudans.