As South Sudan inches closer to formal independence in July, fighting has escalated between ethnic southern and northern tribes in the disputed province of Abyei. Indeed, a long and bitter history of conflict exists between north and south over this oil-rich region.
By Daniel Ooko for ISN Insights
Situated along the yet-to-be defined north-south border of Sudan, the disputed oil- and water-rich province of Abyei is an explosive mix of ethnic tensions, ambiguously defined boundaries and age-old suspicions and resentments. Abyei contains rich pastureland, water and one significant oilfield – Defra, part of a block run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
North and south have fought bitterly over the region through decades of civil war, and continued to clash there even after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which paved the way for the creation of a South Sudanese state.
The major ethnic group in Abyei is the Ngok Dinka, close relatives of the South’s majority Dinka. Their neighbors to the north and northeast are the Misseriya, Arab cattle herders who pass through annually to graze their livestock. Relations between the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka were historically agreeable. However, following Sudanese independence in 1956, the Dinka and Misseriya moved toward opposite sides in the country’s civil wars, polarizing these ethnic communities along north-south lines. The Dinka began to gravitate increasingly toward the south, while the Misseriya – for whom Abyei is a rich pastureland on which to graze cattle during the dry season – were courted by Khartoum, and began to identify with the north.
Abyei as flashpoint
Abyei currently possesses ‘special administrative status’, and is governed by a coalition of officials from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) representing the South, and the North’s National Congress Party (NCP). It is also watched over by Joint Integrated Units made up of northern and southern troops and police, though in reality, these units remain far from ‘integrated’.
Most of Sudan’s wealth comes from oil. Whoever controls Abyei controls the oil and, therefore, much of the wealth of Sudan. In addition to Abyei’s strategic significance, it also holds symbolic and historical importance for each side. South Sudan’s government in Juba claims historical ownership of the region through its Dinka Ngok inhabitants, and a number of leading SPLM figures hail from the area. Indeed, many southerners see the fight for Abyei as an emblem of their long struggle against perceived oppression from the north. However, the Arab Misseriya claim that they have just as much right to the area, having grazed their animals there for centuries. The Misseriya also have Khartoum’s support, with the government in the North insisting that the South must respect the boundaries of the colonial-era administration, thereby giving control of Abyei to the North.
Resolution of the Abyei dispute has proven to be so intractable that it was left unresolved in the 2005 CPA that ended the civil war. Instead, Abyei residents were promised their own referendum. This has yet to take place because of strong opposition from Khartoum, afraid of losing access to the region’s vast oil reserves.
The dispute about who gets to vote in any future referendum is also ongoing. The Dinka say that only a handful of settled Misseriya tradespeople should count as residents – not the many who move in and out to graze their livestock. The Misseriya, however, are demanding equal voting rights.
Toward a resolution
The uncertainty about Abyei’s status has produced recent outbursts of violence in the region. “How to resolve the issue of Abyei peacefully is our key agenda because it has the potential to disrupt all which has been gained in Sudan,” said Zachary Muburi-Muita, the Under-Secretary General of the UN Office to the Africa Union.
According to Peter Kueth, a political analyst from South Sudan, the latest bout of violence is a reminder of the many challenges ahead for a divided Sudan. “The recent violence in the region, coupled with the continuing militarization occurring on both sides of the border, has made an already volatile human security environment even more precarious as competition for resources, including pasture land and oil, intensifies,” Kueth told ISN Insights.
Yongo Bure, a South Sudanese lecturer at Kettering University in the US, said a political solution is needed urgently to resolve the issue of Abyei because any conflict there will have devastating social consequences. “Pastoralists, who form a sizeable population, will, for instance, become destitute,” Bure told ISN Insights, as local markets for their livestock are decimated.
“Abyei still remains a flashpoint which could potentially derail the entire peace process. I urge the CPA parties to take immediate action to calm the tensions in the region and urgently reach an agreement on all outstanding issues,” said Mohamed Chande Othman, the UN independent expert on the human rights situation in Sudan.
As a result of the ongoing failure to agree on the technical details of a referendum for Abyei, some of its inhabitants are threatening to declare their loyalty to the South unilaterally. The US-based anti-genocide Enough Project has warned that the months leading up to the formal declaration of independence in July are critical.
“The latest violence is a reminder of how quickly tensions can escalate and how fighting between actors in Abyei can draw in security forces from both the North and South,” Enough policy analyst Amanda Hsiao told ISN Insights. “The potential for violence in Abyei to trigger larger-scale conflict is there. A mutual agreement on the status of Abyei at the level of the Sudanese presidency is not only a necessary step toward preventing future conflict in the area, but will also facilitate the two parties’ ability to resolve other critical post-referendum issues,” she said.
The International Crisis Group has surmised that although the situation in Abyei remains fragile with high levels of mistrust, a deep desire exists among southerners to reconcile with opposition groups, such as rebels or militia. The ICG also points specifically to the role of oil in the impasse that must be acknowledged and dealt with in good faith, according to the wealth-sharing provisions of the Abyei Protocol to the CPA.
Analysts say that the most likely solution is to organize a successful referendum in keeping with the Protocol and the wider peace process. However, as UN representative David Gressly warily remarked, “The signature of the peace agreement is only the first step. Implementing it is the hard part.” Nowhere does this appear to be more true for the future of Sudan than in Abyei.
Daniel Ooko is a Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)