Keeping the peace in Abyei, Sudan

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Lieutenant-Commander Mike Fitzpatrick

It is mid-September in the Abyei region of Sudan, and we are on a routine peacekeeping patrol as members of a Joint Military Team (JMT) from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). It's hot, about 35 degrees Celsius, and we are driving down a seldom-used dirt road. The lead vehicle is a white U.N. Toyota pickup truck carrying our armed escort of half a dozen Zambian soldiers. The JMT follows the Toyota in two white U.N. Nissan SUVs.

The straight, flat road is a little soft from the rain two nights ago, but is in generally good condition with only the occasional mud patch to negotiate. We are approaching the spot where, a couple of weeks ago, a patrol was illegally detained by a company of soldiers in violation of the peace agreement we are here to support.

The lead vehicle, the Toyota, halts suddenly, and some soldiers dismount. The patrol leader, driving the second vehicle, brakes and signals to the third vehicle, the one I am riding in, to stop some distance back. I get out and join the patrol leader, who tells me that soldiers are walking up the road towards us. I take out my binoculars to take a look and, sure enough, I see what appears to be a small group of soldiers. Walking on both sides of the road, they are apparently looking for a way off it, and soon they disappear into the seven-foot-tall grass. Two things seem clear: they are not supposed to be here, and they do not want to be identified.

After confirming that we all agree on what we have seen, we get back in the trucks and continue on past the spot where the soldiers were. We see the breaks in the grass where they left the road, and soon come upon a bivouac area that was clearly used the previous night. Here we find a military cap, a litter of food wrappings, and sleeping areas marked by sticks pushed into the ground to support mosquito netting. Having completed our investigation, we continue with our patrol. The next day, we return with two armoured personnel carriers as escort, but find nothing more than a few wild boar crossing the road where the soldiers had been.

Recent events in the Darfur region of western Sudan have been so tragic that it is easy to forget the massive scale and brutality of the 1983-2005 civil war in southern Sudan, which caused some 2.5 million deaths and ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Since then, UNMIS has supported peace and stability in southern Sudan through its activities in support of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Canadian Forces contributes to UNMIS with contingent of 20 military observers, eight staff officers and three support personnel. Several Canadian police officers, civilian employees and volunteers also serve with UNMIS.

The peace in southern Sudan is tenuous. Sudan is a large country with well over 100 tribal and ethnic groups, and friction between and among them is an unfortunate cultural reality. Inter-tribal violence in southern Sudan resulted in more than 1,500 deaths between January and September 2009, and seems to be getting worse. At the same time, negotiations, mediation, commissions and electoral processes are in progress, all working toward long-term peace and stability in southern Sudan.

In this context, the Abyei Administrative Area is of particular interest because it is the focus of many peace and security issues, and one of the main centres of attention for the ongoing peace process.

The large, complex document that is the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is actually a compilation of six separate agreements, one of which deals specifically with Abyei. From a peacekeeping perspective, the main components of the CPA are:

- separation of forces along the 1956 line dividing north and south Sudan;

- creation of Joint Integrated Units and Joint Integrated Police Units to provide security in the area of separation;

- negotiations over the exact location of the border between north and south Sudan;

- revenue and power sharing arrangements, including the creation of a Government of National Unity and an autonomous Government of South Sudan;

- disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants;

- return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their former areas of residence;

- elections at the state and national level in 2009 (postponed to April 2010);

- a referendum on independence for southern Sudan, to be held in 2011; and

- for the residents of the Abyei area, a separate referendum in 2011 on whether they wish to remain part of northern Sudan, or become part of southern Sudan.

In July 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on the geographic boundaries of the Abyei Administrative Area. Both the NCP and the SPLM have agreed to abide by the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, as have the two main tribal groups with an interest in the Abyei area. In many ways, this makes Abyei a bellwether for the life and effectiveness of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Future events in Abyei will either prove that security can be obtained through peaceful means, or spark more conflict between north and south Sudan.

The immediate concern is that tribal clashes could draw the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army back into conflict. This happened as recently as May 2008, when intense fighting destroyed much of the town of Abyei and put most of the area's 60,000 residents to flight. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling has encouraged many to return, but the threat of fighting is always on people's minds. During their annual southward migration, which begins soon, the nomadic Misseriya tribe will pass through the Abyei Administrative Area, potentially coming into conflict with the resident Dinka Ngok people. If the migration goes peacefully, it will be a good indication that Sudan is on track toward peace and security.

In the longer term, the upcoming elections and referenda in 2010 and 2011, plus ongoing negotiations on border demarcation, will provide additional tests for the people of Sudan. Border demarcation could prove particularly difficult due to competition for natural resources, oil in particular. However, the Abyei area peace process has so far demonstrated that satisfactory results are achievable through peaceful negotiation.

So, for the present, the United Nations Military Observers in Abyei will continue to be the eyes and ears of the U.N., and thus ensure that the conditions of the Permanent Court of Arbitration are upheld. Their active presence in the area through continuous patrolling is a visible symbol to all of the international community's commitment to building peace and security in Sudan.