‘Forgotten’ Abyei on edge as fighting rages in Sudan

Saturday May 13 2023
A woman rides a donkey Abyei

A woman rides a donkey as nomad families from the Misseryia area in Abyei region migrate. FILE PHOTO | AFP


The disputed region of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan is bearing the brunt of the conflict in the north, with the flow of the displaced heightening the existing tensions in the region.

Abyei, which lies between Sudan’s states of South Kordofan and Warrap, and Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal states in South Sudan, has been experiencing tensions for 18 years, having failed to conduct a referendum to determine to which country they belong.

The United States Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs Robert Wood told the UN Security Council on May 9 that the violence in Khartoum has led to the deployment of Sudanese and South Sudanese forces and police in Abyei, a clear violation of the demilitarisation programme.

Mr Wood said that the deployment is not only a security threat to the Interim Security Force for Abyei (Unisfa) but could also increase tensions between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya Arab nomads in the north, and the Twic from Warrap State in the south.

“Hostilities in Khartoum have further jeopardised the safety and security of Unisfa personnel, as well as impeded Unisfa’s ability to carry out its mandated tasks, including protecting civilians, assisting humanitarian efforts, and supporting a peaceful settlement of the final status of Abyei and its border issues and the establishment of the Abyei Police Service,” Mr Wood told the Council.

He called on South Sudan to support the Joint Border Verification Monitoring Mechanism in southern Abyei, given the ongoing fighting between the Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka, the influx of refugees and internally displaced people fleeing Sudan, and the presence of armed groups.


Read: Juba, Khartoum vow to tighten security cooperation

More than 50,000 people are estimated to have fled to South Sudan since the fighting began on April 15 and the Juba government has waived visa requirements for those fleeing the war.

“We are pleased with Unisfa’s continued engagement to resolve tensions between the Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka. Both communities to uphold their ceasefire agreement and utilize the tools Unisfa offers to support and enable a safe and inclusive environment. We further call on the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka to utilise peaceful solutions during the seasonal migration period,” said Mr Wood.

The disputed oil-rich Abyei region was supposed to hold a simultaneous referendum with South Sudan in January 2011 to decide whether they want to belong to Sudan or South Sudan, but, South Sudan and Sudan have failed to reach an agreement on who can vote in the referendum.

Khartoum had demanded the participation of the Misseriya pastoralists who come to the north of Abyei to graze their herds and for water in River Kiir during the dry seasons, but Juba had objected arguing that the Misseriya who belong to Sudan are not permanent residents of the region.

Frustrated by the delay in settling the status of Abyei, the Ngok Dinka in 2013 unilaterally decided to hold their own referendum in which the Abyei residents voted 90 percent have Abyei to join South Sudan. However, the African Union, Juba, and Khartoum refused to recognise the results since it was done outside the 2005 peace agreement.

In 2011 when Abyei failed to hold the referendum, the United Nations established Unisfa to check against violence and escalating tensions. The Unisfa is authorised to use force to protect civilians and humanitarian workers in Abyei.