Landlocked between Northern and Southern Sudan, hundreds of kilometres from any major town, sits the small, rural territory of Abyei.
This Kosovo-sized region, where no more than a few hundred thousand people reside — precise population figures are disputed—was for generations a remote and largely inconsequential district. In 1905, British colonial administrators transferred the district to Northern Sudan’s Kordofan province. This was administratively more convenient than controlling the area from the Southern Sudan province of Bahr el Ghazal.
The transfer took place despite the predominantly Dinka Ngok population of Abyei — an ethnic group closely related to other Dinka sub-groups, together comprising the largest ethnic grouping in Southern Sudan. The northern reaches of Abyei are historically populated and used as grazing land by the Arab Misseriya, pastoralist cattle keepers residing across Kordofan and Darfur.
Abyei was troubled throughout Sudan’s civil wars. Misseriya and Dinka Ngok were recruited to fight on opposing sides of the greater North-South conflict. Traditional mechanisms for resolving conflict and addressing access rights to land and water broke down. Raids and attacks in the region were particularly brutal, and some of the war’s heaviest fighting took place near Abyei and neighbouring Southern Kordofan.
A hundred years after the colonial transfer, negotiations between the Northern Government of Sudan and the Southern Sudan based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), concluded under international pressure a specific agreement on Abyei, known as the Abyei Protocol. The Protocol was incorporated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) agreed to in 2005.
The Protocol opens: “Abyei is a bridge between the north and south, linking the people of Sudan.” The agreement goes on to commit the parties to determining the precise boundaries of Abyei through an expert body, the Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC); describes security and local government arrangements; provides a wealth sharing formula for the region; and, specifies that simultaneous with the self-determination referendum for Southern Sudan, a second vote for the people of Abyei be conducted, allowing Abyei to decide whether it should remain administratively part of Northern Sudan or return to the South. If, as is widely predicted and expected, Southern Sudan secedes and Abyei votes to re-join the South, the region would theoretically become part of any newly independent Southern Sudanese state.
In 1905, the idea that Abyei would one day be at the heart of the nascent Sudanese oil industry was inconceivable. Yet so it became. Abyei produced a quarter of Sudan’s daily oil output in 2003, and accounted for $529 million in oil revenues in 2007. Production has sharply declined since then, although reliable production figures are difficult to confirm and the potential in future reserves is speculative.
The boundaries determined by the ABC were rejected by the National Congress Party (NCP) led Government of Sudan in 2005. For two years, the district existed in a state of limbo, eventually leading to renewed conflict. In the uneasy peace that the CPA initiated, Abyei has been the scene of some of the most serious violations of the comprehensive ceasefire. Clashes in December 2007 between armed Misseriya and the SPLA continued into January and February. The Joint Integrated Units (JIU)—the CPA’s formula for building a new national army equally formed of SPLA and Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) units—failed in Abyei to keep the peace, and in May 2008 was itself the source of violence. A major battle between SPLA and SAF contingents displaced tens of thousands and left Abyei town a smoldering ruin; other than the UN compound, where international peacekeepers had largely stood by helpless during the fighting, and the Catholic church, a solid brick construction, the town had been razed to the ground.
Following the fighting, Abyei became the subject of international justice. Under international pressure, the NCP and SPLM agreed to refer the boundaries dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. In a ruling by the PCA tribunal in July 2009 last year, the panel accepted in part the decision of the ABC, while in various places re-drawing the territory’s boundaries. The effect of this has been to reduce the size of the Abyei area, leaving a number of the oil fields outside the new boundaries. The PCA’s decision was initially accepted by both the NCP and the SPLM. But in the year following the PCA’s ruling, progress in Abyei has stalled. Physical demarcation of the boundary has so far proved to be impossible to implement.
On August 1, a senior NCP official, presidential advisor Salah Gosh, stated that “the decision of the international court [PCA] did not solve this problem and did not satisfy the needs of the two partners,” and called for “new solutions.” And while preparations for next year’s referendum in Southern Sudan proceed, albeit slowly, Abyei’s own referendum has largely been overlooked. An impasse between the NCP and SPLM has blocked the formation of Abyei’s own referendum commission, with agreement on the body’s membership so far impossible to reach. A number of peaceful demonstrations have been held to protest the government’s failure to appoint the commission, and as Gosh’s remarks suggest, the war of words is turning more hostile.
Fresh, although so far limited, violence has broken out. While international backers of the CPA and the SPLM are largely focused on the principal referendum event in Southern Sudan, not ensuring that the Abyei referendum process moves forward in concert raises the chances Abyei’s own vote never happens. The North is reluctant to let Abyei go. A further escalation in violence in the region is very possible. And holding the vote without working to build acceptance and trust with the Misseriya will prevent a sustained peace. Should there be any future conflict between North and South, whether to dispute boundaries or wealth, Abyei will again be at the crossroads.
Aly Verjee is a writer and analyst, specializing in the study of contemporary African politics. He has lived in East Africa since 2005. Aly has written a three part series on the referendum in Southern Sudan. Follow these links to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.