Abyei hold the keys to peace in Sudan

The January 2011 Referendum in south Sudan has attracted global interest; but Abyei will also have a Referendum at the same time to determine whether the region is part of north or south Sudan. The Abyei Referendum will not only be crucial for a north-south peace settlement, it will also play a part in determining the stability for the region.

By Stephen Kelly for

An End in Sight...

On 9 January 2011, two referenda are scheduled in Sudan. One is whether South Sudan will form an independent state. The other is on Abyei retaining its current administrative status as part of North Sudan or opting to join South Sudan. A staggering two million people died from violence and famine from 1983 to 2005 in Africa's longest civil war with Abyei at its centre. The better armed North Sudan forces fought against a factious South Sudan army. Abyei's people know more about surviving the bitter flux of war than they do living in stable peace.

To an outsider, fighting and dying for this impoverished, desolate land is difficult to understand. The rainy season transforms the terrain from a dusty, parched hell to a barely habitable swamp. Crop harvesting lasts a few weeks at best. Nature repeats her cycle with brutal regularity. Food is scarce and supply sporadic. This is a land of intriguing and unforgiving contrasts.

Abyei's socio-political and economic landscapes are no different. Spending time here illuminates the complex multitude of interwoven threads that bind its people to the land. Abyei has been a fulcrum around which bloody, prolonged, needless violence has marred Sudan's economic, socio-political development.

Local Conflict and Resolution - Times Change

During the long dry seasons local groups gravitate towards diminishing water sources in search of meagre grazing grounds. Expanding cattle herds, upon which people rely for trade, marriage and survival, mean tensions often escalate. The two most prominent Abyei groups, the pastoralist African Ngok Dinka and the nomadic Arab Humr Misseriya, used traditional institutions for mediation and prevention of violence. [1]

During the 1970s and early 1980s, significant oil deposits were discovered in the Abyei area. Widespread exploration fuelled a dangerous cycle of speculation, greed and unrealistic expectations. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms were systematically eroded and undermined by Northern political manipulation. [2]

Unresolved grievances and growing disillusionment contributed to the conflict. With a lack of faith in now corrupted traditional leaders, 'the imposition of political Islam, and disputes over economic resources', security deteriorated. [3] Issues of race, ethnicity and culture 'increasingly divided the country into Arabs and Africans'. [4] Sharia law and subsequent resistance by non-Muslims was a national conflict feeding into the Abyei problem. All this tore the fabric and rubric of rural Abyei society asunder.

The North Sudanese and International governments began supplying arms directly to the Misseriya who, acting as a proxy army, raided Dinka areas forcefully displacing thousands . [5] A promised Abyei referendum on belonging to North or South Sudan looked unlikely. It's unsurprising that Abyei became a major recruitment hub for the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) as Sudan's second civil war began in 1983.

'Peace' and its Obstacles

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 by President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) and Vice President John Garang's SPLM (the political movement of the SPLA). For a second time since Sudan's independence, an Abyei referendum was guaranteed. Since then there has been a disappointing, tangible lack of progress in CPA implementation on Abyei. Despite numerous delays, preparations are ongoing to hold the Southern referendum on time. Most observers expect South Sudan to vote for secession. Yet the Abyei referendum is severely delayed and will not proceed on time.

Abyei Referendum Commission (ARC) membership is a major obstacle. The two sides are in loggerheads since this dictates who can eligibly vote on Abyei's future. The multitude of local alliances is mind-boggling with numerous nomadic and settled Arab and African groups inextricably linked to the area seasonally, permanently and through marriage. It was unrealistic to expect the CPA to flesh out such intricacies of ARC membership. Ownership with open communication is vital in achieving an accepted, respected and honoured referendum outcome. The CPA was heavily influenced by US, UK and Norwegian diplomatic pressure and financial support. Under international law they agreed a roadmap culminating in the referenda. International pressure is again needed on Abyei while using lessons learned in other peace talks. [6]

Another explosive issue is border demarcation. As in other civil wars, local interests conflict with national agendas. The idea of a border is alien to people who have lived together for centuries. It complicates seasonal migrations, trade and livelihoods. With political gridlock on the issue since 2005, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was approached as mediator and referee. A PCA ruling in July 2009 placed the contentious border oilfields of lucrative Higleig in North Sudan. This was accepted by the NCP and SPLM at the time. But afterwards more hard-line, right-wing elements on both sides accused their political parties of walking away with less than they should have. A multitude of local militias supported during the civil war now resent the NCP and SPLM. Misseriya are worried access will be impeded once a 'hard' border is created despite grazing rights being enshrined in both the CPA and PCA's boundary ruling. They are willing to fight for this right. The Dinka will retaliate if provoked.

Support Not Supplant

The United Nations meetings facilitated in 2010 provided space for Misseriya and Dinka representatives to address miscommunications, misconceptions and prejudices. Rather than supplanting these groups with national politics, they need to be supported. Hussein Jalal-Aldin, deputy chairman of the Misseriya Forum, a tribal deliberative body, claims that in the absence of external political meddling, local groups could resolve the border dispute for trading, grazing and security. Given the long bloody interlude since effective tribal court hearings were held, it is questionable if traditional structures are capable of resolving a border dispute. Yet dialogue between border groups is a prerequisite to peace. Local groups can bring the country back to war. They must be listened to.

Other thorny, ubiquitous issues exist. The CPA states that only residents of Abyei can vote in the referendum. Residents are defined as members of the 'Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area.' Arguably transit rights are different to voting rights in the referenda of another 'dar' or homeland. Irrelevant of the right to vote, ethnically defining residents is precarious. Defining who is resident given the seasonal movements of most people is equally contentious.

Equitable wealth-sharing of oil is vital for a peaceful Abyei. North Sudan controls the hardware and distribution networks. South Sudan contains the majority of oil estimated at 80 per cent of total Sudanese reserves. A lot of this is in the Abyei area. Few obvious similarities exist between the frozen, fir-lined fjords of Scandinavia and the hot, barren expanse of Sub-Saharan Africa. But lessons can be learned from Norway on 'harvesting' a natural resource transparently and inclusively. [7] Turning finiteness to sustainability with Abyei's oil won't be easy given the dearth of well informed and empowered civil society, a low level of education, endemic corruption and a history of authoritarianism.

Small arms are prevalent in the borderlands. Most of these remain from decades of war. In May 2008, the north Sudanese army - the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) - and the SPLA clashed in Abyei. The town was razed to the ground causing mass displacement of thousands. Violence can erupt with frightening speed.

The burned shells of vehicles and houses are still visible today. New arms supply chains have been established. The NCP supply arms to groups along the borders to destabilise the region. High casualties (often women and children) between nomadic Arab groups such as the Rezeigat and Misseriya have occurred north and west of Abyei. The areas South of Abyei have seen recent frequent inter-ethnic clashes among the Nuer, Murle and Dinka. [8] These groups regularly clash with the SPLA and SAF.

Incentivising and Leveraging

Addressing real and perceived grievances will make peace more attractive than violence. Sequentially delivering incentives in the form of development projects at a local level for all groups are needed. Providing financial remuneration encourages civil society groups to develop their capacities and representation of border communities. Nationally, incentives can take the form of foreign investment commitments, government legitimacy in the eyes of the West and the normalisation of relations with neighbouring countries (e.g., Egypt over water rights).

The relative economic clout wielded by the US and Europe globally is diminishing. An avaricious appetite for natural resources in Asian economies continually strengthens oriental trade links with Abyei and Sudan. This cash cow is a primary conflict driver in the Abyei region. But if Asian investors were absent, another global economic giant would purchase and consume its oil wealth. These companies will not benefit from war.

Collectively, private investment freezes, trade embargos including oil export restrictions and foreign aid reductions all hurt the Sudanese economy and in turn influence the government's stance on Abyei. Piecemeal approaches have little impact. That is the backbone of effective sanctions. To be an effective leveraging tool they must be collective.


Despite formidable challenges, voter registration is complete with intense efforts being made for an on-time Southern referendum. The Abyei referendum will not be held on time. Does Salva Kiir - Sudanese Vice President and de facto leader of southern Sudan - have the capacity and respect to quell disquiet and avoid fighting in Abyei dragging the country back to war? Such momentum and hope has built up behind the expected referenda in south Sudan that any delay will pose challenges to SPLM power, Kiir's own position as Vice President and national security.

On the other hand, short-cuts cannot be taken. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Special Representative Haile Menkerios stresses how an ill-prepared, hastily executed Abyei referendum will jeopardise the credibility and undermine legitimacy. [9] The NCP arguably has less to lose than the SPLM from a postponement than from the referenda proceeding. A certain reckless indifference is present within elements of the NCP over both referenda.

If the South votes for secession, as is widely expected, many daunting challenges face the nascent country. If Abyei votes to join a separate South Sudan, the chances that the NCP disputes the border at Abyei are high, either directly or through proxy armed forces. If this occurs the SPLA and NCP will return to war. The SPLA will get support from East African countries and the US (the SPLA are currently being trained by European and US armed resources in an effort to develop a well-trained, disciplined army capable of defending its borders). Khartoum with its eyes on Asia will have little difficulty in securing military hardware as long as oil contracts are honoured. Few want this scenario to play out. There will be mass movement and displacement of people. Minorities are already relocating in anticipation of Southern secession.

This will place significant stress on already strained resources and meagre services, especially in the South. Both the NCP and SPLM have guaranteed protection of minorities in their respective areas including Abyei. This guarantee must be crystallised by all politicians, armed groups and police who clearly understand that no human rights abuses will be tolerated in the event of secession or Abyei joining the South. Civilians have been massacred before. [10] War, when society fails and lawlessness prevails, is the very time when upholding human rights is paramount.

Shared Responsibility

Abyei is one piece of a complicated puzzle in one of Africa's most troubled countries. Yet it also epitomises the issues that plague Sudan's entire borderlands. Abyei referendum preparations have been obstructed, inauspicious and malignant at best. What is to be avoided at all costs is a return to the bloodshed that has cursed this country's development for so long. With widespread violence in Chad, Somalia, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the region does not need more insecurity and bloodshed. Manmade famine, widespread rape and murderous bloodshed must stop now. This festering miasma of tense daily survival cannot continue. Abyei holds the key to permanently removing the shackles of conflict and suffering endured by millions of Sudanese as well as improving regional security in the Horn and East Africa. The chances of an elitist backroom-bargaining solution (i.e., through a high level political and financial compensation package) working in Abyei are slim. Local engagement is needed. Resolving the Abyei conundrum can teach other groups along the borderlands of Sudan how to live amicably in peace while satisfying national political agendas. There's a long way to go but this problem won't go away.


Stephen Kelly lived in the Abyei region of Sudan for most of 2009 in the aftermath of heavy fighting between North and South Sudanese forces. Amid mass displacement and further suffering, he performed detailed field research on conflict drivers in the area as well as investigating possible solutions to achieving a sustainable peace after Africa's longest civil war came to an end in 2005. Having previously worked in conflict zones in the humanitarian sector, he actively writes on security and developmental issues. He has worked and travelled extensively in East Africa in countries including the DRC, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. This article is a snapshot of his research on Abyei, both field and desk based, from 2009 to present.


1. Mark Bradbury, Michael Medley, John Ryle, and Kwesi Sansculotte-Greenidge, 'Local Peace Processes in Sudan - A Baseline Study', held at the Sudan Archive of the Rift Valley Institute, commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (2006), p. 73.

2. Sara Pantuliano, Omer Egemi, Babo Fadlalla and Mohammed Farah, 'Put Out to Pasture - War, Oil and the Decline of Misseriya Humr Pastoralism in Sudan', Report by Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute, London, UK (2009), p. 5.

3. Alex de Waal, 'Food and Power in Sudan: A Critique of Humanitarianism, <>, (1997) p. 19.

4. Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions - Conflict of Identities in the Sudan, (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1996), p. 492.

5. Douglas Johnson, 'Why Abyei Matters - The Breaking Point of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement', in African Affairs (Vol. 107 No. 26, 2007), p. 7.


Mark Duffield, Jok Madut Jok., David Keen, Geoff Loane, Fiona O'Reilly, John Ryle, Philip Winter, (2001) 'Sudan - Unintended Consequences of Humanitarian Assistance - A Field Study', in liaison with Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, in a report to the European Community Humanitarian Office at <> (2000), p. 35.

6. Laurie Nathan, 'The Failure of Deadline Diplomacy for Darfur', RUSI Journal (Vol. 151, No. 4, August 2006), p. 74. As painfully shown during the Darfur peace talks in Abuja, "disputant parties have to shape, embrace and own a peace agreement" if it is to result in lasting peace." Forced deadline diplomacy and all it embodies has repeatedly failed, not only in Darfur, and it is unlikely to work in Abyei.

7. Global Witness' report 'Ensuring a Transparent and Verifiable Oil Deal in Sudan', published in October 2010, suggests a process for ensuring a transparent oil deal in Sudan post-referenda, , accessed 27 October 2010.

8. BBC News, 'Horrors of South Sudan Massacre',, 10 August 2009, accessed on 11 August 2009. Numerous attacks have occurred around Abyei and in the areas over North, South and West Sudan (Darfur). In Akobo, Jonglei State, the Murle tribe massacred mostly women and children.

9. United Nations News Service, 'Sudan: UN ready to increase capacity as needed for upcoming referenda', 18 October 2010, accessed 19 October 2010.

10. Sharif Harir and Tejre Tvedt, Shortcut to Decay: the case of the Sudan (Motala, Sweden: Motala Grafiska AB, 1984), pp. 186-187.