The Crisis in Abyei
As the Sudanese army moved into Jau, a contested territory on the border between the two Sudans, and the deadlock between the two countries over oil transit fees deepened, the crisis in Abyei remained as intractable as ever.
After a week of talks between the two countries in Addis Ababa (26–30 November), mediated by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) chaired by Thabo Mbeki, little progress had been made. During the discussions, neither side moderated its position on Abyei, with Sudan insisting that the area is part of its territory and rebuffing an earlier offer by South Sudan to exchange Abyei for an unspecified sum of money. With the recent violations of South Sudanese sovereignty by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and deepening tension between the two countries over oil, a diplomatic solution to the Abyei crisis seems increasingly remote.
Among the Ngok Dinka, frustration with African Union attempts at mediation is growing. This anger builds on feelings already in evidence in 2010, when the AUHIP proposed several solutions to the Abyei crisis, one of which was a further division of the area, with the northern half going to Sudan. This proposal was enthusiastically supported by the Sudanese government, but angered the Ngok Dinka community, who saw it as a de jure formalization of the occupation of Ngok Dinka territory by Missiriya militias during the second civil war. On 30 November Kuaja Yai Kuol, the chairman of the Abyei Relief Coordination Committee, made this discontent explicit and called on the Government of South Sudan to cease allowing the AUHIP to play a mediating role in negotiations over Abyei.
As of 12 December, SAF continues to occupy the area. South Sudan's army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, has fully withdrawn from Abyei and has established a brigade headquarters at Mijan Kuol, just 3 km south of Agok. Nonetheless, the UN Security Council (UNSC) released a statement on 4 November stating that it 'deplored the failure' of both sides to withdraw their armed forces from the area. The statement further clarified that under the terms of the 20 June Addis Ababa agreement
there 'were no-preconditions for the implementation of the agreements signed by the parties, including the withdrawal of forces'. This clarification was important, because the Sudanese government had previously insisted that SAF was not supposed to withdraw until all the Ethiopian peacekeepers in the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) were deployed. The Sudanese government shifted its position in November, however. It now says it will withdraw when the new Abyei Area Administration has been established, thereby moving the goalposts regarding withdrawal in order to justify a prolonged SAF occupation of the area.
A 6 December statement issued by the Troika (made up of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway) urged both parties to fully withdraw from Abyei. The Ngok Dinka community wants the outside world to do more than issue statements, however. On 30 November Kuaja Yai Kuol asked the international community to consider enforcing a no-fly zone above the area to ensure SAF's withdrawal, a demand that was clearly meant to invoke the NATO Libyan intervention. This remains off the table as far as the UNSC and the Troika members are concerned.
UNISFA had deployed 2,872 troops as of 14 November—around 70 per cent of the total force—and plans to be fully deployed by the end of December. Patrols are now visiting Abyei town, Agok, and Defra, and temporary operating bases have been established at Todac, Noong, and Rumamier, among other locations. The Banton Bridge, which links Agok and Abyei town, and which was destroyed during the May 2011 invasion, has now been repaired by UNISFA, which is also carrying out demining activities in Todac. The UNSC is also currently discussing transforming UNISFA by expanding its mandate so that it will be responsible for monitoring the whole of the South Sudanese–Sudanese border.
Ngok Dinka sentiment about UNISFA is mixed. Some of the displaced in Agok are suspicious because as the Ethiopian troops arrive in Abyei, they are being briefed by SAF in Kadugli, South Kordofan. There is also frustration that UNISFA is not trying to remove SAF from Abyei. However, the Ethiopian soldiers making up the force are perceived to be more capable combat troops than the widely reviled Zambian peacekeepers who were present at the UN Mission in Sudan base in Abyei during the invasion, and therefore better able to protect civilians in Agok.
The Addis Ababa agreement states: 'The Parties shall constitute a committee to nominate and agree on the Abyei Area Administration including the Chief Administrator and Deputy Chief Administrator, by 22 June 2011.' However, no agreement has been reached on the composition of the administration as of 9 December, with Ngok Dinka leaders complaining that the Sudanese government is not nominating people from Abyei itself—and, indeed, not even nominating Missiriya, but members of the National Congress Party (NCP) from Khartoum.
While the new administration seems unlikely to be established in the near future, the old one is still functioning, supported by the Government of South Sudan, although without recognition from the Sudanese government. Several of its NCP-aligned members fled to Khartoum following the May invasion, but the majority are in Agok and Juba. They argue for the illegality of the decrees dissolving the administration that President Bashir issued, claiming that for such decrees to be legal, they should have been taken in consultation with President Salva Kiir, head of the Government of South Sudan and the vice-president in the Government of National Unity at the time. This position is supported by the Abyei Roadmap and the Abyei protocol in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, both of which make the composition and appointment of the Abyei Area Administration matters for the Presidency rather than President Bashir alone.
Meanwhile, the Missiriya migration began in earnest around 31 October. As of 7 December herders are already just above Abyei town, with 5,600–6,000 head of cattle seen in the areas around Goli. They are expected to reach the river Kiir by the end of December. UN sources report limited Missiriya settlement along the grazing routes, notably at Dokura. There are also reports from sources in Muglad that the NCP is offering cash payments to the Missiriya to settle in Abyei, but these reports have not been independently verified.
There are several possible reasons for the Missiriya beginning their migration early this year. In the absence of the traditional negotiations on grazing routes, during which routes through Abyei are normally plotted in relation to extant Ngok Dinka cattle grazing and agriculture, they may simply be moving faster than in previous years. Another possibility is that they are taking advantage of better grazing possibilities in Abyei in order to compensate for restrictions across the border in South Sudan. Many Missiriya normally move their cattle into Unity state after grazing in Abyei, which may no longer be possible due to clashes in the state, Sudanese bombing of areas along the border, greatly deteriorated relations between the Missiriya and the Ngok Dinka, and the hostility towards the Missiriya of other groups in South Sudan who are angry at the role they played in the invasion of Abyei.
Preparations are also afoot for the return of at least some of the Ngok Dinka population who were displaced in May 2011. On 3 November the Ngok Dinka leadership visited Abyei, with the support of UNISFA, and is now preparing return strategies. There has also been a slight increase in the number of families returning to Abyei independently, with around 50 returning to Mijak and many more returning temporarily to inspect their properties. SAF is encouraging the returns, even though mines are still present in the area, planted by both armies. It is unclear whether SAF encouragement is simply a strategy to normalize its presence in the territory. If SAF could convince the Ngok Dinka to return, it would remove one of the principal criticisms of the army—namely that it is preventing the Ngok Dinka from returning—and would be something of a public relations scoop for the NCP, which could then point to successful SAF–Ngok Dinka coexistence as an argument in favour of Abyei remaining in Sudan.
On 10 November, at a planning meeting in Agok attended by NGOs, UN agencies, and members of the local political administration, various return strategies were discussed, but it was agreed that a full SAF withdrawal will be a necessary first step before a full-scale return can take place.
Despite having twice agreed to withdraw the army, the Government of Sudan is making a withdrawal increasingly contingent on negotiations with the Government of South Sudan, while at the same time effectively blocking such negotiations, thus ensuring that the occupation continues. Stretching out the occupation will serve to strengthen Sudan's hand at the negotiating table and appease an army angered by the South's secession. As relations between South Sudan and Sudan grow more difficult, the advantages to the latter of the continued occupation of Abyei are growing.
Updated 12 December 2011
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