Nairobi/Brussels - Abyei is on the brink of dangerous new conflict that risks escalation of violent confrontation between security forces and other armed proxies from North and South Sudan on the eve of Southern independence. Fighting in recent days follows months of recurring incidents in the hotly contested border territory, underscoring dangerous tensions both on the ground and between leaders of the National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Khartoum and Juba, respectively.
North and South have deployed forces in and around Abyei in breach of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and subsequent security arrangements, as both seek to control the territory come Southern independence on 9 July. While previous clashes have involved civilians, informal militias, and/or police, last week's involved members of security forces on both sides. Further escalation and additional tit-for-tat deployments risk pushing Abyei beyond the tipping point, endangering lives and the fragile peace in Sudan.
Fighting broke out at a security checkpoint near Todach in the Abyei area on 1 May, after Sudan Armed Forces elements of the Joint Integrated Units (JIU, a largely failed CPA mechanism comprising troops drawn from the Northern and Southern armies) allegedly delivering an authorised weapons shipment were stopped by Southern police forces; fighting erupted leaving some 14 dead. In addition to the immediate threat posed to civilians in and around Abyei, at risk are recent gains of the CPA and the peaceful secession of the South.
Both North and South have unilaterally asserted claims over Abyei in recent weeks, either in public rhetoric or in draft constitutions; Khartoum has even threatened to withhold recognition of Southern independence, underscoring the stakes and the importance of a mutually agreed solution. Further deterioration also threatens ongoing negotiations toward a constructive post-2011 relationship and risks escalation of proxy conflicts in other parts of both North and South Sudan.
The dispute over Abyei - a territory geographically, ethnically and politically caught between North and South - is one of the most intractable in Sudan. The area is settled primarily by Ngok Dinka communities and has been used for hundreds of years by Misseriya pastoralists who migrate to and beyond the territory to graze huge cattle herds during the dry season. Clashes early in the year and unresolved tensions have again prevented the Misseriya migration south, and apparently large numbers of cattle may die for lack of grass and water.
The CPA granted Abyei its own referendum (a choice to join the new South or remain a special administrative territory within the North), but this did not take place in part because of heated disputes over who was eligible to vote. Ngok Dinka constituents are overwhelmingly in favour of joining the South, while Misseriya communities fear annexation could prevent migration and thus threaten their way of life.
But the Abyei dispute has also assumed broader political dimensions, and been used as a bargaining chip between North and South. Despite common perceptions, the dispute is not primarily about oil, as the fields currently in Abyei only constitute a very small percentage of Sudan's total production.
The African Union and the U.S. have made numerous attempts to broker a solution, but none have borne fruit. The parties - through President Omar al-Bashir in the North and President Salva Kiir in the South - have agreed that the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), which is tasked to facilitate negotiations on outstanding post-referendum and CPA issues, will table a new proposal toward a political solution in late May.
In the meantime, forward progress on other post-referendum issues (oil, currency, debt, and citizenship) could alter the North-South equation and ideally present a better opportunity for a mutually agreeable solution on Abyei. Meanwhile, tensions between the NCP and SPLM have spiked in neighbouring Southern Kordofan state where elections have just been held. The results have not yet been announced, but will impact North-South relations as well as the potential re-establishment of a Misseriya-dominated Western Kordofan state (in their traditional homeland), and thus further alter the political calculus in Abyei.
Ngok Dinka and Misseriya leaders, and their allies in Juba and Khartoum respectively, are engaged in aggressive posturing in an attempt to influence the political negotiations over the future status of Abyei. Both sides have legitimate concerns and grievances, but their tactics carry enormous risks for the people of Abyei and for peaceful relations between North and South more broadly.
Some believe only international intervention will solve the crisis, but perpetuating a destabilised situation to that end is both highly dangerous and uncertain to deliver results. The risks of miscalculation and crisis escalation are extremely high. No international intervention can substitute for a political agreement between the parties that must also have buy-in on the ground.
Security has grown ever more precarious for the people of the region. Agreements negotiated under UN auspices - 13 and 17 January 2011 and 4 March 2011 - to stem increasing violence resolved that security would be provided only by newly deployed Joint Integrated Units and Joint Integrated Police Units (created under the May 2008 Abyei roadmap).
However, poor performance, prior involvement of JIU troops in large-scale clashes in 2008 and some seemingly unauthorised relocation have fuelled mistrust. Furthermore, the number of new JIU battalions currently deployed is not enough to secure the entire area; some units, fearing attacks, have reportedly even left the area.
In addition to mobilising and arming civilians, reports indicate that both the SPLA and SAF have deployed additional battalions and heavy weapons to, or near, the area. Further mobilisation or additional deployments inside Abyei would increase the chances for conflict exponentially. The security situation is made all the more precarious by the presence of heavily armed Southern police units, Popular Defence Forces, Misseriya militias and other independent, often criminal, militias. Many of these forces are only loosely controlled, if at all.
To avoid a major crisis in Abyei and beyond, the following steps are necessary:
Following the 8 May meeting of the UN-chaired Joint Technical Committee (which comprises representatives of SAF, SPLA, and police and national security officials from North and South) , the two sides must follow through on their commitment to withdraw all unauthorised security elements from the Abyei area by 17 May.
The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) must be given unfettered access to verify these withdrawals and facilitate implementation of agreed short-term security measures, including the full deployment of vetted and approved JIU forces to agreed locations as per the timeline agreed on 8 May. Basic infrastructure as well as food, water, and logistical supplies are needed to better support the Abyei JIU deployments as long as they are needed to help provide security. The JIU units should not include troops from the Abyei communities. The UN should also consider co-locating liaison officers with the JIUs and stationing others at important checkpoints. The current static deployments in Abyei are insufficient to monitor movements in the area adequ ately and to build confidence among the population.
UNMIS should ensure its troops stationed in Abyei are capable of actively supporting the JIUs in providing security and protecting civilians, as per the Kadugli agreements (13 and 17 January). To this end, it should consider increasing troop levels there from other sectors. If some troop contributors are unwilling to take the security risks of protecting civilians under imminent threat of violence as mandated by the UN Security Council, the elements concerned should be immediately replaced in Abyei by more willing ones.
Both North and South should desist from making unilateral claims to Abyei, whether in rhetoric, constitution drafting or legislation; the territory's status must be determined by a mutually agreed settlement and local endorsement.
The AUHIP should accelerate the post-referendum negotiations so as to potentially open the door wider to a political solution on Abyei itself. At the same time, Juba and Khartoum must do whatever necessary to avoid provocation and ensure that local communities remain calm until a new proposal is tabled toward a settlement.
All international partners, particularly the African Union, UN, Troika members (U.S., UK, and Norway), the European Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Arab League should give firm and united support to the proposal the AUHIP is to submit later this month.
The danger of new conflict is real. Failure to halt the downward trend toward violence in Abyei could unravel the tenuous peace that has been strong enough to get through the Southern Sudan referendum, but it could also intensify proxy war in other parts of Sudan, which will continue to feed the adversarial North-South relationship that both sides have so well accommodated over the course of the CPA period.