Analysis: Sudan’s Abyei bracing for a “bad Christmas”

In 2008, fighting in Abyei town caused widespread destruction/Photo: UN OCHA

As international mediators struggle to resolve a row over who will govern Abyei, residents in the troubled and increasingly militarized region of Sudan are growing impatient. Analysts fear the frustration may get out of hand.

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“Indecision and delays… have made the local community nervous,” an aid worker in the town of Abyei told IRIN. “The anxiety is turning into tension and that is the worry.”

Abyei straddles the border between semi-autonomous Southern Sudan and the North. Under the terms of the once-warring neighbours’ 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), it is jointly administered until a referendum determines whether it retains its special status in the north or joins the South.

But while a vote on Southern independence seems likely to take place on schedule on 9 January, political wrangles mean there is little chance Abyei’s future will also be decided then, even though the referenda are supposed to be simultaneous.

“Abyei is a concern to everybody,” Lorna Marekeje, head of the Sudan Domestic Election Monitoring and Observation Programme, told IRIN. “The Abyei Referendum Commission cannot be set up with [just] 50 days to go, but the people there should be given their right to decide where they want to go.”

The delay has raised tensions between the Ngok Dinka community, the majority of Abyei’s permanent residents, who mainly supported the South during the 1983-2005 war, and Misseriya pastoralists, who bring their livestock into the region to graze during the annual January-to-May dry season. The North armed many Misseriya as proxy militias during the war.

“Large numbers of armed, unemployed youth allied neither to [Khartoum nor Juba, the Southern capital] present a serious security threat as tensions deepen in the countdown to the referendum,” the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey warned in a recent update on Abyei.


According to the Enough Project, a US-based advocacy group, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has proposed that in lieu of a referendum, part of Abyei, excluding areas that produce 0.6 percent of the country’s oil, be handed to the South.

There have also been reports that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which governs the South, suggested Abyei be given in toto to the South, in exchange for an as-yet unspecified concession to the North.

With the support of the African Union, the NCP and SPLM are negotiating a raft of issues that will shape their post-referendum relationship. The SPLM insists a settlement on Abyei is a prerequisite to progress in these talks.

“Abyei is a complicated issue, but from both sides there is a will to have a solution,” Badreldin Abdalla, deputy head of mission at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi, told IRIN. “I am so optimistic that they are going to have a solution for that.”

SPLM Secretary-General and Southern Minister for CPA Implementation, Pagam Amum, shares this optimism. He recently said he was confident imminent summit talks would “result in a breakthrough on Abyei, to bring the anxiety and suffering of people there to a close”.

Rhetoric rising

But as the clock ticks down to January, there has been much international concern about the rising level of inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the border.

Many Misseriya, for example, fear their grazing rights in Abyei are in jeopardy, even though they are enshrined in the 2005 peace deal.

“Some in Khartoum have stoked such concerns, and encouraged the Misseriya to fight for participation in the Abyei referendum,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.

“While the Government of Southern Sudan has repeatedly pledged that the Misseriya may continue their traditional grazing patterns into Abyei and Southern Sudan regardless of the referendum outcome, the issue of security and arms-carrying during migration has not been sufficiently addressed, contributing to Misseriya scepticism of such pledges,” it added.

The Ngok Dinka have adamantly opposed the Misseriyas’ claims that they are eligible to vote in the referendum. And at a recent meeting in Juba’s legislative assembly, Ngok Dinka leaders warned of the consequences of derailing the vote.

The “unconstitutional plan to forestall or abort the Abyei referendum shall mean that the Misseriya nomads will not enjoy free access to pasture and water in Abyei area as from this year’s dry season”, they declared.

There is a fear that any such action could easily trigger violence.

“Local communities in Abyei have politicized the grazing needs of the Misseriya who have no other way of keeping their cattle alive,” an aid worker in Abyei said. “They are now seen as proxies for Khartoum and that is a very worrying situation.”

Pointing at the lush grass along the banks of the Kiir river at Awol, a settlement on Agok-Abyei road, Kuol Malual, a resident, said: “Recent rains have kept the grass growing and the river full. That is an invitation to the Misseriya herdsmen to bring their livestock down to graze. That movement means trouble.”

Settlement threat

Addressing the Juba meeting, Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir alluded to reports that Khartoum was encouraging Misseriya to establish permanent settlements in Abyei.

“We cannot give a piece of the land to the Misseriya… don’t think the NCP is [so] powerful that they can take the land by force. If they attack us, we have the right to self-defence,” he said.

The growing presence of military forces around the border adds to the gravity of the situation.

In October, the Small Arms Survey reported that Khartoum had sent Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) troops, tanks and heavy weapons to an area north of Abyei. Juba has accused Khartoum of re-arming some Misseriya, while the NCP claims the Southern army (SPLA) has sent additional troops to Abyei in the guise of local police.

“Both the Misseriya and the Ngok are heavily armed,” Kur Deng, a local resident, said. “If nothing comes out of talks… then we will have a bad Christmas.”

Rumbles of conflict

In its latest report, the ICG warned: “Command and control structures are put to the test in such circumstances, as a single hostile incident could inadvertently ignite much broader conflict, particularly in the period around the self-determination referendum, when emotions will be high.”

On 24 November a helicopter reportedly attacked a Southern army position in Northern Bahr al Ghazal state – next to Abyei – wounding four soldiers and two civilians.

“All these open provocations and violations [by the Northern army] are deliberately designed to drag Sudan back to war, to justify the impossibility of conducting the referendum in the South and in Abyei,” Southern army spokesman Philip Aguer said.

Reports of the attack were corroborated by local officials but denied by Khartoum.

In May 2010, Misseriya herdsmen clashed with Abyei residents just north of the region’s capital. Two months later gunmen attacked the village of Tajalei, about 30km northeast of Abyei town, killing five people.

Abyei Chief Administrator Deng Arop Kuol, a Ngok Dinka, blamed the Misseriya, describing the incident as part of a ploy by Khartoum “to resettle the Misseriya in Abyei in the lands of Ngok Dinka”.

Two years earlier, fighting broke out between Northern and Southern troops deployed in joint units in Abyei, leaving the town in ruins and prompting some 25,000 people to flee.

After those clashes, Khartoum and Juba agreed that the only armed elements allowed in Abyei should be UN peacekeepers, SPLA and SAF troops integrated into a joint unit, and members of a joint integrated police unit.

Malual, the Abyei resident, is hoping there will no repetition of such violence.

“We really wanted to vote in January, but cannot understand why we are not being allowed to,” he told IRIN. “And there would be no problem between us and the Misseriya if the politicians left us alone.”



Theme (s): Early Warning, Governance, Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]