New article on the situation in Abyei

The Crisis in Abyei

Relations between South Sudan and Sudan have steadily worsened over the last month. South Sudan shut down oil production on 22 January, following a stalemate in negotiations over oil transit fees. The political rhetoric coming from both countries is increasingly bellicose: South Sudan has warned that a return to war is a distinct possibility, while the second vice president of Sudan, Al Haj Adam Yusuf, told media on 25 January that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), currently fighting an insurgency in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, would be pursued all the way to Juba, if necessary. Recently concluded negotiations between the two sides in Addis Ababa did not produce significant progress.

In an effort to calm the situation, Sudan and South Sudan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 10 February, committing both sides to non-aggression and cooperation. It is unlikely that the MoU will be anything other than the latest in a series of paper agreements. Within hours of its signing, South Sudan accused Sudan of bombing Jau, a town in Unity state on the disputed border between the two countries.

Following South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, both countries agreed a transitional period of nine months to resolve the remaining post-independence issues, such as the disputed border. This period will end in March 2012, and the border will not be demarcated by then. It is unclear whether the transitional period will be extended.

As of 20 February, Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) remain in control of Abyei, with troops concentrated in Abyei town, Goli, and Defra, Abyei’s sole remaining oil field. Defra has now taken on more importance for Sudan, following South Sudan’s decision to stop pumping oil through its territory.  Revenue from southern oil constituted 40 percent of Sudan’s budget before South Sudan’s independence, and the loss of transit fees as well as oil revenue has badly damaged Sudan’s shaky economy. The current situation means SAF has all the more reason to continue to occupy Abyei. Oil production at Defra has declined over the last five years, as of 2009, the field has been producing just 4,000 barrels per day (bpd) (just 4-5 per cent of total Sudanese oil production). However, losing even 5 per cent of oil revenues would be extremely damaging to an economy already reeling from the loss of South Sudan.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has, in accordance with the 20 June Addis Ababa agreement signed by Sudan and South Sudan, withdrawn its forces from the territory of Abyei. There is, however, a sizeable force at the Brigade HQ in Mijan Kuol, some 5 km south of the river Kiir/Bahr al Arab, and the South Sudan Police Force (SSPS) has forces in Agok. South Sudan is, more generally, moving the SPLA towards the border region, in anticipation of a fresh outbreak of hostilities.

Negotiations focusing on Abyei’s future have ground to a halt. Both sides have asked the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) to propose a final solution.

There remains a substantial gap between the respective positions. Sudan insists that Abyei is part of its territory, as Abyei is north of the 1956 border – a claim that is neither supported by the text of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (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), nor by the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. South Sudan insists the Ngok Dinka, Abyei’s permanent residents, are South Sudanese and that Abyei belongs to South Sudan.

At present, the AUHIP is focusing on the implementation of the Addis Ababa agreement and not on proposals to resolve the political crisis.

On 18 February, Ali Mahmood, the Sudanese minister of finance and the national economy, told journalists that the United States had notified Khartoum that it would cancel Sudan’s $2.4 billion debt, contingent upon full implementation of the CPA. Full implementation would mean holding a referendum in Abyei to allow residents to decide on the territory’s future. Given the standoff over the referendum in 2010-11 – with Sudan insisting that the Missiriya be counted as residents and allowed to vote, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) emphatically refusing this possibility – it remains unclear how the CPA could be implemented in Abyei without major concessions on both sides.

Despite SAF’s continued presence in the area, the deployment of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) continues. Of the mandated 4,200 troops, 3,798 have now been deployed and have taken positions across the territory, including at Defra, Todach, Dungop, Alal, and Tajalei. A field artillery battery and a tank company have recently been added to positions just north of Abyei town. The deployment of civilian supporting staff continues to be delayed, however, because the government of Sudan has not yet authorized the necessary visas.

Six months after the signing of the Addis Ababa agreement, there is still no Status of Forces (SoF) agreement between the UN and the Sudanese government to determine the parameters of the UN’s involvement. This delay means UNISFA could find its scope for action drastically reduced at a later date, if the Sudanese government decides to restrict it.

The UN is also involved in demining in Abyei. The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has focused on clearing the Banton-Rumameer road to allow humanitarian agencies greater mobility. As of 23 January, UNMAS had surveyed 212 km of road. Landmines and unexploded ordinance has been found in Todach, Tajalei, Noong, and Alal – villages used by Missiriya pastoralists, and some of the most important villages in any future return of the Ngok Dinka. According to UNISFA, most of the land mines detonated so far have been found near water sources.

On 15 December, UNISFA’s mandate was expanded by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to include assisting Sudan and South Sudan in implementing the 29 June agreement on Border Security, and the Joint Political and Security Mechanism (see text below), which is to establish a demilitarized zone along the entire border. As of 20 February, UNISFA is still preparing to take up these new responsibilities. On 15 February, Sudan and South Sudan agreed to demarcate the border between the two countries during the next three months, leaving out only the five areas that are still disputed, namely Abyei; Kafia Kingi in Western Bahr al Ghazal; Kaka, which is between Upper Nile and South Kordofan; and Jodah and Alamanas, between Upper Nile and White Nile. If demarcation does proceed, then UNISFA’s capacity to secure the border will be tested.

Negotiations about Abyei’s internal political system are just as blocked as the state-level talks on the territory’s future. The Sudanese government insists that it will not withdraw SAF from the territory until a new Abyei Area Administration (AAA) is established. 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.

As of 20 February, there is no agreement between the two sides over the composition of a new AAA. The government of South Sudan insists that the speaker of the Legislative Council should be a member of the Ngok Dinka. The Sudanese government says this is not a requirement. The Addis Ababa agreement does not refer to ethnicity or nationality in the section that deals with the composition of the AAA. Instead, in relation to the speaker of the Legislative Council, it states: “The Chairperson of the Council shall be elected from a list of three (3) persons nominated by GoS [Government of Sudan].”

Even if the AAA were created, it is uncertain whether SAF would actually withdraw given that it has changed benchmarks for withdrawal in the past. Meanwhile, the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC) held its third meeting on 18-19 January in Abyei town, and agreed on the composition of the Joint Military Observers Committee, which will monitor military forces in Abyei. The AJOC also agreed to implement the remaining measures of the Addis Ababa agreement, such as the establishment of an Abyei Police Service, whose size and composition is to be determined by the AJOC. 

The Missiriya migration into Abyei continues. According to UNISFA, as of 19 January, there are 75,000 people and 960,000 cattle in the Abyei area. The largest concentrations of Missiriya is in the western corridor (around Alal) and the eastern corridor (around Um Khariet). In a major change in the pattern of migration, there are now reports of whole families moving, rather than just men. This suggests that the Missiriya now believe that migration into Abyei is safe enough to bring their families.

The Missiriya leadership has agreed to a UNISFA proposal that establishes a Joint Security Committee, composed of two UNISFA officers and a community leader, to monitor the security situation and resolve conflicts between Missiriya migrants and Ngok Dinka returnees. UNISFA has also held meetings with the Ngok Dinka to ensure the safe passage of the Missiriya.

There has also been an increasing number of Ngok Dinka returns to Abyei. By 12 February, an estimated 3,800 people had moved back to villages including Wunruok, Marial Achak, and Majak – all south of Abyei town. It is unclear how many people have permanently returned, and how many are simply checking on their homes.

Most former residents are still in exile in Agok, south of the Kiir/Bahr al Arab river. The vast majority of the Ngok Dinka insist they cannot return home until SAF leaves the area. They also say land mines and a lack of livelihood opportunities make returning impossible.

Updated 22 February 2012