Abyei Report

The Crisis in Abyei – October 2011 Update

As clashes continue in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the crisis in Abyei is as intractable as ever.
Thabo Mbeki, the head of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel currently mediating between Sudan and South Sudan in post-independence negotiations, seemed upbeat when he met with Republic of South Sudan (RoSS) president Salva Kiir on 28 October, claiming there had been progress towards resolving the outstanding issues between the two states, including the thorny issue of Abyei.

Such optimism has not been matched by developments on the ground, however, or by the official rhetoric of the two states, which remains as far apart as ever. On 29 October, just a day after Mbeki spoke to Preisdent Kiir, Pagam Amum, the secretary-general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, announced that the RoSS had offered Sudan a deal in which Abyei would be transferred to South Sudan and Sudan would relinquish its claims on other parts of the disputed border area between the two countries. In return, Amum said, the RoSS would offer Sudan an unspecified amount of money and discounted oil sales.

The National Congress Party (NCP), Sudan's governing party, brushed off the offer, however. Ibrahim Ghandour, an NCP spokesperson, told a political rally in Sennar state that there would be no compromise over Abyei. In part, Ghandour's remarks should be understood as political posturing in front of an important constituency for the NCP and not necessarily representative of compromises the party may be willing to entertain in closed-door negotiations. Nevertheless, with both states committed to hard-line constituencies and the NCP increasingly embattled by growing political and military opposition within Sudan, it is highly unlikely that there will be a political settlement on the issue in the near future.

The situation on the ground is barely more promising. The 20 June Addis Ababa agreement, which committed both states to withdrawing their armies from Abyei, has still not been implemented. Following the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Abyei briefing on 6 October, the Sudanese ambassador to the UN, Daffa-Alla al Haq Ali Osman, reiterated that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) would only withdraw from Abyei following the full deployment of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). The RoSS is maintaining its previous position – that the Addis Ababa agreement commits both sides to unconditionally withdrawing their forces regardless of whether or not the UNISFA force is fully deployed. (The agreement states that SAF should withdraw its forces 'immediately consequent on the deployment of an Interim Security Force for Abyei composed of Ethiopian troops'.) Following the UNSC briefing, the RoSS's UN envoy, David Buom Choat, reiterated his call for SAF to withdraw, but to no avail.

While SAF troops are still occupying Abyei town and preventing the return of the displaced civilian population, on 6 October the new chief of UN peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, noted that the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) had not withdrawn from the area either. Following this statement, on 20 October SPLA spokesperson Philip Aguer said that the SPLA had removed its troops from Manyang and Malual Alel, just north of Agok, and had therefore fully withdrawn. This has yet to be independently confirmed.

Hampered by heavy rains and a lack of cooperation from SAF, UNISFA forces have certainly been slow to deploy. As of 20 October 2,892 troops—almost two-thirds of the total force—are in the Abyei area. UNISFA patrols resumed on 23 August following a suspension after four Ethiopian soldiers died in a mine explosion in early August, and regular patrols visit Abyei town, Agok, and Defra. UNISFA is expected to eventually take over the UN base at Kadugli, following confirmation from the Sudanese government.

The Addis Ababa agreement revised the political organization of the Abyei Area. Crucially, the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC) is to take over responsibility for security in the area from the Abyei Area Administration. The first two meetings of AJOC were cancelled by the Sudanese government, however, which claimed it needed time to change its representatives on the committee. On 25 October the government said that Omar Suleiman would be replaced with Elkheir Elfaheem Almaki. While the composition of AJOC is now confirmed, there is still no agreement on the Abyei Area Administration, with the Sudanese government's nominees remaining unacceptable to the RoSS. Sudan and South Sudan will jointly finance the budget according to the agreement after the Abyei Area Executive Council has been constituted and approved by the Abyei Area Council. The Abyei Area Council has yet to be formed, however, and there are disagreements over its composition. Without agreement about these basic interim political institutions, resettling the displaced population will prove extremely difficult.

Approximately 110,000 displaced persons are currently still residing in Agok, 45 km south of Abyei town, and in Twic county in Warrap state. The Ngok Dinka have little faith that UNISFA will be able to provide adequate security for them to return. There is also little faith in UNISFA's word: Tadesse Werede Tesfay, the force commander, assured residents on 16 September that SAF would withdrawn from Abyei by the end of the month, damaging his credibility. While some Ngok Dinka have reportedly resumed farming at Abothok and Marial, most civilian residents will not return to Abyei until SAF completely withdraws. The presence of mines is also a threat to returnees. UNISFA has carried out limited demining exercises and the United Nations Mine Action Service is expected to deploy very soon. UNISFA is also rebuilding the Banton bridge, which links Agok and Abyei, and which SAF destroyed in May 2011. Construction is expected to be completed by mid-November.

Members of the Ngok Dinka population have indicated that any discussion with Missiriya groups about the latter's annual migration to Abyei can only begin after the Ngok Dinka have returned to the area. The migration is due to begin next month, raising the prospect of heightened tensions between the two communities as the Missiriya graze their cattle on Ngok Dinka land.

SAF seems intent on remaining in Abyei as long as it can: stretching out the occupation will strengthen Sudan's hand at the negotiating table and appease an army angered by the Southern secession. As long as the army is there, political negotiations on Abyei's future will struggle to get off the ground. Even if SAF pulls out, however, it remains to be seen if displaced former residents will have enough faith in UNISFA to return home.

Updated 8 November 2011