Why disputed Abyei is the peace plank for the two Sudans

Saturday October 05 2013

Sudan and South Sudan are split on who should determine where Abyei should be: The original Dinka Ngok inhabitants or the nomad Misseriya sent there by Khartoum. Worse, neither side will cede ground over the proposed referendum or composition of the legislative assembly. TEA Graphic

Uncertainty hangs over the fate of the disputed Abyei region, which straddles the border of Sudan and South Sudan. The dispute has been longstanding, and, often, bloody.

A range of economic and territorial interests on both sides makes the fate of the flashpoint region difficult to predict.

Originally home to the nine Dinka Ngo’k chiefdoms, Abyei was transferred to Kordofan by the British colonial administration in 1905. Several attempts to return the region to Warrap state in South Sudan have been strongly resisted by successive Khartoum governments.

A 1972 peace agreement between Jaafar Nimeri’s government and the then Southern Sudanese rebels promised a referendum to determine the status of the region.

But after the discovery of oil in Abyei, the regime shelved the vote. Instead, a massive, government-sponsored campaign to resettle Arab Misseriya nomads in the region was set in gear in order to change the area’s demographics.

The Dinka Ngok resisted the resettlement schemes in the 1960s, leading to the infamous 1965 massacre of the Dinka Ngok at Kiir River.


The massacre escalated the already existing tensions. Dinka Ngok youth formed anti-government groups and were among the first to join in the Southern Sudanese rebellion that erupted in 1983.

A 2005 peace deal that ended the more than two-decade civil war and paved the way for formal independence of South Sudan promised, again, a referendum for Abyei in January 2011. But the vote was derailed over a disagreement about eligible voters.

Three years later, there are no clear indications that the status of Abyei will be resolved soon.

African Union mediators had proposed October for the vote and granted voting rights mainly to the Dinka Ngok. Sudan rejected the proposal.

This rejection is not new in the dispute over Abyei. In July 2005, President Omar al-Bashir trashed a report of the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) delimiting the borders of the Abyei area as required in the 2005 peace deal, arguing that the commission had exceeded its mandate.

After three years of negotiations, the Khartoum regime opted for the barrel of the gun in 2008, attacking the bases of the South’s component of the Joint Integrated Units (JIU) — a mixture of Sudan and Southern Sudan army soldiers.

A deadly battle ensued, killing scores, including Abyei civilians. A new round of talks over Abyei was convened and both sides agreed to refer their dispute to an international arbitration court. Still, sporadic clashes continued to define the region.

In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a verdict over the dispute, reducing the Abyei area by about 16,000 square kilometres. It also defined the Abyei area as a land for the nine Dinka Ngok chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, literally giving the voting rights to the Dinka Ngok.

READ: Abyei dispute is settled, but will verdict be respected?

This verdict should have been final and binding, but not to al-Bashir. He interpreted it in two ways. First, he accepted the verdict and used it to gain legitimate authority over the areas delimited out of the Abyei area, such as the Heglig oilfields.

Second, he misconstrued the verdict to mean that the Misseriya residents were eligible to vote. He insisted that without the participation of the Misseriya Arab nomads, whose cattle graze in northern Abyei during the dry season, no vote would take place. This is what sabotaged the January 2011 referendum.

When two elephants are fighting, the saying goes, the grass suffers. The Dinka Ngok are the grass. When the disagreement over the involvement of Misseriya in the referendum escalated, Bashir’s regime unleashed violence in May 2011, overrunning police posts and seizing the region.

Al Bashir dissolved the area’s joint administration and chose a military administrator. The Dinka Ngok were killed in scores, their property looted and huts set ablaze.

Some 110,000 civilian Dinka Ngok were displaced into South Sudan. They camped in the open, becoming helpless victims of the scorching tropical sun and rains. The children, the elderly and the women suffered diseases and food shortage.

The Dinka Ngok withstood this in the hope that one day, they would attain their destiny: Vote to join their ethnic brothers in the South — just like South Sudan did after decades of violence, suffering and misery at the hands of the same successive Khartoum regimes.

No agreement on vote

But so far, nothing shows that this long-held aspiration is close. Sudan is adamant on its rejection of the AU proposal. As such, no timetable has been drawn up for the vote.

Several presidential attempts, including the September 3 Kiir-Bashir summit in Khartoum, have failed to break the deadlock on how to conduct the plebiscite.

Sudan wants the area’s joint administration formed first, with Khartoum taking 50 per cent of the 20-member legislative assembly. This is contrary to the previous arrangements, in which Sudan took 40 per cent of the seats.

At the time, Sudan would split its 40 per cent share into halves between the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya. But now, Sudan insists that the Misseriya must take part in the vote.

On the other hand, South Sudan wants the previous 60:40 ratio maintained and a referendum commission formed to organise the vote. No side is willing to compromise.

In the words of former Cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol, who hails from Abyei, South Sudan will not “compromise a compromise of a compromise.”

The first compromise, he said, was in the 2005 Peace Agreement, when the South agreed to a referendum instead of annexing the region by decree. The second compromise was to accept Bashir’s demand for an arbitration court instead of the Abyei Boundary Commission report.

And now, the ruling by the court in The Hague, giving voting rights mainly to the Dinka Ngok, would not be compromised, he said.

“This is going to be a very bad precedent for the international community, that international courts should come up with decisions and rulings, and they are not implemented,” Mr Alor said.

“There will be no need for anyone to call for international arbitration,” he said.

After The Hague ruling, Sudan said it needed roughly another 4,000 square kilometres — the northern Abyei region — in order to organise a referendum for the Dinka Ngok or transfer the southern part of Abyei to the South via a presidential decree. South Sudan said it had lost much of the land and could not afford to give up such a big chunk to Sudan.

With The Hague ruling thrown out and demand for more land out in the open, the talks got complicated. The then US envoy Scott Gration, in talks in Addis Ababa in 2010, proposed that the region be divided into two and the southern half transferred by decree to South Sudan.

“This made the National Congress more difficult. They have become intransigent, because now they feel they have the support of the US,” Mr Alor said, according to minutes by Sudan expert Douglas Johnson.

Mr Alor said that then Senator John Kerry visited South Sudan with similar views. South Sudan insisted on the referendum. The US said it had no position, but was trying to bridge the gap between the two sides.

Now the new US envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Don Booth, is urging both sides to organise a referendum in line with the AU proposal. Sudan, angered by Mr Booth’s support for the proposal, asked the US to first improve relations with Khartoum by delivering on earlier promises, including lifting sanctions and removing the country from the list of terrorist sponsors.

Vote preparation

In preparation for the vote, the Dinka Ngok are returning home in large numbers. So far, more than 1,000 people have been airlifted from Juba to Abyei. The flights leave almost daily, apparently sponsored by the government of South Sudan.

The youth stage demonstrations urging the international community to pressure Khartoum to organise the vote.

“We will decide our own destiny, whether Khartoum likes it or not. Khartoum has nothing to do with Abyei,” said Edward Lino, the co-chair of the Abyei Joint Operations Committee.

READ: South seeks political solution to failed Abyei polls

Khartoum has warned of the illegality of such an action, so has the African Union. The AU and UN have also warned against any military campaign in the area.

The AU may not have abandoned its proposal. In recent days, the continental body has been issuing statements calling for the formation of a commission to organise the plebiscite.

READ: Africa Union calls for Sudans summit on Abyei

In case of lack of agreement, the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2046 requires the AU mediation team to propose a solution to the AU Peace and Security Council and after endorsement table it before the UNSC to be endorsed as final and binding.

However, the AU could have proposed names for the referendum commission or recommended a solution to the Peace and Security Council, to eventually be forwarded to the UN Security Council.

Diplomats are however wary that an imposed solution may not deliver any peace for the two countries: Presidents Kiir and Bashir have to talk.

Abyei allure

Abyei is endowed with a fertile soil suitable for agriculture and has suitable grazing land for animals. The region is also oil-rich. Sudan is currently pumping oil from Abyei as well as the Heglig oil fields that South Sudan still claims.

In May, Dinka Ngok chief Deng Kuol was murdered, soaring the already tense relations between the two communities.

As the dispute drags on, so does suffering and misery for the Dinka Ngok. If the vote is not conducted, the Dinka Ngok will have no other means than to decide and announce their own destiny, according to Dr Luka Biong Deng, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and former Cabinet affairs minister in Khartoum.

Sudan has warned against such a unilateral move. This shows that peace between Sudan and South Sudan rests primarily in the resolution of the Abyei dispute. The political dynamics could change if the UN were to administer the area and conduct the referendum.