In January 2011, Abyei’s residents were supposed to vote in a referendum to determine whether they wanted Abyei to remain in Sudan, or join what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. The Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) failed to organise the referendum due to a dispute over who was eligible to vote.
The past year has seen the worst violence in Abyei since the second civil war, with a series of attacks by militias, backed by the Government of Sudan, culminating in a full-scale invasion of the territory by Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in May 2011. Around 110, 000 Ngok Dinka residents fled the area, and have yet to return. It is now just over a year since Abyei’s aborted referendum, and there is little prospect of a resolution in the near future.
Despite an agreement in Addis Ababa on 20 June committing the Sudanese government to withdraw its forces from Abyei, as of 13 January 2012, SAF’s occupation of the territory continues. Recent statements suggest that the army will remain indefinitely. This strengthens Sudan’s hand at the negotiating table with the SPLM, and appeases an army angered by South Sudan’s secession. As conditions along the rest of the border deteriorate, SAF’s presence in Abyei is also militarily useful.
On 15 December 2011, SAF spokesman Colonel Al Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad told reporters in Khartoum that the army’s presence in Abyei could not be considered an occupation because Abyei lies north of the 1956 border and is thus part of Sudan.
On 4 January 2012, presidential advisor Nafie Ali Nafie was even more bellicose. Speaking at a rally in Khartoum, he warned South Sudan that any attempt by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to attack SAF positions in Abyei would lead to the abrogation of the as yet unimplemented Addis Ababa agreement. He also said the SPLA had, in any case, no grounds for attacking Abyei because, according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Abyei is part of Sudan. Neither claim is supported by the text of the 2005 CPA, which explicitly states that the 1956 border applies to the entire Sudan-South Sudan border, except for Abyei (see Article 1.4, Abyei Protocol).
In response to recent UN Security Council (UNSC) statements urging both SAF and the SPLA to withdraw from the area, Sudan reiterated that any SAF withdrawal would be conditional upon the full deployment of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), and the establishment of a new Abyei Area Administration, which it is effectively blocking. Sudan maintains this position despite repeated UNSC statements declaring that, under the 20 June Addis Ababa agreement, there are no preconditions to the removal of both sides’ armed forces.
UNISFA, initially tasked with security in Abyei, saw its mandate expanded last month. On 15 December, UNSC Resolution 2024 tasked the force with assisting Sudan and South Sudan to implement the 29 June agreement on Border Security and the Joint Political and Security Mechanism (see text below). The force will find it difficult to fulfill its new mandate, which includes assisting “in building mutual trust.” Indeed all of its new responsibilities rely on cooperation between Sudan, South Sudan, and UNISFA, which is currently lacking. In December, fighting continued in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, while Sudan also bombed locations in Unity state inside South Sudan. South Sudanese officials also say that on 30 December, Sudan carried out air strikes on Raja, the capital of Western Bahr al Ghazal; the Sudanese government denies this. As both sides edge towards overt conflict it is difficult to see how UNISFA will be able to fulfill its mandate.
On 22 December, the UNSC also extended UNISFA’s mandate for another five months, while insisting that the force could only carry out its work effectively if the Addis Ababa agreement was implemented. Just a few days earlier, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), the previous UN force in Abyei, was criticized for failing to uphold its mandate. In a 20 December report, Amnesty International accuses UNMIS of failing to protect Abyei’s civilian population during the May invasion.
UNISFA has finally deployed almost all of its authorized 4,200 military personnel. UNISFA medical facilities have been built, and helicopters have now been contracted to carry out emergency evacuations. During the first four months of 2012, UNISFA police officers are scheduled to deploy, conditional on the establishment of a new Abyei Area Administration, and an Abyei police force. Demining activity continues, with over 100 mines and unexploded ordinance recovered so far, despite neither SAF nor the SPLA providing UNISFA with detailed maps marking out mined areas. While the Government of Sudan has not formally approved the transfer of the former UNMIS base at Kadugli to UNISFA, the force is now guarding the camp, and taking over remaining stocks.
While UNISFA continues to set up, there has been little change in the political situation. After a series of cancellations, the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC) finally held its second meeting on 13 December. Dr Luka Biong, of South Sudanese NGO Kush Inc., led South Sudan’s delegation, while El Khair Fahim led Sudan’s. The formation of a new Abyei administration was discussed, although no agreement on its composition was reached. South Sudan’s delegation asked SAF to withdraw from Abyei, while Sudan’s delegation indicated it wished to maintain a military presence in the territory. Recent statements by Sudanese officials cast doubt on Sudan’s commitment to the establishment of a new administration. On 10 December, Dafalla Al-Haj Ali Osman, Sudan’s ambassador to the UN, said that it was too late to create an Abyei administration, and blamed South Sudanese recalcitrance with regard to the nominees Sudan had put forward for executive positions. Ngok Dinka politicians from Abyei complain that Sudan is not even nominating local Missiriya for these positions, but members of the National Congress Party (NCP) from Khartoum. The next meeting of the AJOC is scheduled for 18 January 2012.
On 9 January, in response to the continuing deadlock over Abyei’s political future, a triumvirate of important politicians from Abyei – Deng Arop, the chief administrator of the Abyei area; Chol Changath, the Abyei Area SPLM secretary; and Dr Luka Biong filed complaints about the SAF occupation with six different UN Special Rapporteurs, and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The triumvirate asked the rapporteurs to investigate the situation in Abyei. It is unlikely their complaints will bring about change on the ground, but they are symptomatic of a growing frustration.
The majority of the Ngok Dinka remain in Agok, just south of the river Kiir. However, people are increasingly visiting their villages in Abyei, and according to UNISFA, there are now 2,000 people living north of the river, although Abyei town remains deserted. The vast majority of the Ngok Dinka insist that they cannot return home until SAF leaves, and there is mounting frustration with UNISFA. On 15 December, Arop Madut Arop, South Sudan’s member of parliament for Abyei, told reporters, “even if they [UNISFA] bring 1,000 more or 10,000 more there, it is useless as they are not going to force Sudan out of Abyei.”
While the majority of the Ngok Dinka refuse to return to Abyei, the Missiriya migration continues in earnest, with at least 20,000 livestock in Abyei. Some Missiriya have now reached Abyei town, and there have been reports from the Ngok Dinka community that they have also reached the river Kiir. However, no Missiriya migrants have been seen in South Sudan.
The Missiriya grazing their cattle in Abyei are armed, and recent events have suggested a degree of coordination with SAF. On 20 November, around 160 Missiriya, of whom 30 were carrying small arms and riding motorbikes, travelled from Defra to Abyei town, and entered the SAF base there, before returning to Defra on the same day.
Meanwhile UNISFA is attempting to address the speed of the migration. Missiriya elders met with UNISFA on 29 November, and apparently agreed to slow their movements towards Abyei town. UNISFA has also set up checkpoints in Abyei town, to prevent armed Missiriya from entering.
Updated 13 January 2012 Click here for more in-depth information on the crisis in Abyei.