Abyei, an oil-rich region on the border between North and South Sudan, has been worrying the international community for some time. The region was scheduled to hold a referendum on January 9 (the same day South Sudan voted on its secession) to determine whether it would remain part of the North or secede with the South. The referendum never took place, and despite the Kadugli Agreements – which provide for the deployment of Joint Integrated Units (comprising both Northerners and Southerners) to keep peace in Abyei – tensions are running high concerning Abyei’s political future. Abyei’s divided populations want different outcomes: many Misseriya Arab pastoralists support continued unity with the North, while Ngok Dinka farmers largely want to join the South. Now the governments of both North and South Sudan are laying claim to Abyei, increasing the potential for both local and national conflict. Last week saw significant violence in Abyei as Northern and Southern soldiers clashed.
The US, the UN, the AU, and the International Crisis Group have recently weighed in on the situation, taking a relatively unified stance in calling for an end to violence and an adherence to existing agreements.
The United States on Thursday expressed growing alarm over Sudan’s disputed Abyei region, warning it was escalating into a situation that could imperil the country’s landmark 2005 peace deal.
“We are very concerned about recent developments there and the build up of forces in Abyei,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing.
“This is a dangerous standoff and its unacceptable. We condemn the deployment of forces by both sides.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “is deeply concerned by the continued tension” in the area.
“The military standoff is unacceptable,” Ban said in a statement.
On Friday, Ban urged the two sides to avoid claiming ownership of the area to avoid undermining a peaceful resolution.
“The parties must refrain from provoking each other or engaging in any military confrontation in Abyei as this could result in further loss of life and significantly affect the future relationship between North and South,” he said.
The Commission of the African Union (AU) noted on Thursday with grave concern over the recent violence in Abyei Area, Sudan, and deeply regretted the tragic loss. The AU also extended condolences to the families of the victims.
The AU commission said the recent violence occurred in the context of a failure to implement the Kadugli Agreement on security in Abyei.
It called on the rival parties to immediately and fully carry out the accord, including the withdrawal of any unauthorized armed force in Abyei.
International Crisis Group (via email):
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.
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.
Despite the International Crisis Group’s cautionary words, international concern has been mirrored by calls within Abyei for international intervention:
Abyei’s chief administrator, Deng Arop Kuol on Thursday, called for immediate and effective international intervention to resolve the political impasse hindering citizens in the oil-producing region from deciding whether they will join South Sudan and or remain in the North.
On Thursday, the chief administrator said the Abyei dispute needs aggressive and focused international attention to break the deadlock.
“The talks over Abyei are never shedding light. The National Congress Party is deliberately refusing to the implement the Abyei protocol. It is time for [an] international committee to pay focused and aggressive attention,” said an emotional chief administrator, Deng Arop Kuol in an interview with Sudan Tribune in Abyei town.
He accused the Khartoum-based NCP of using the Sudan Armed Forces to attempt to annex the region to the north my military means.
“The government in Khartoum is no longer interested in seeking peace to settle the issue of Abyei because it feels all attempts and proposals never comes out in their favor so they are resorting to the use of force,” said Kuol.
Abyei has for months been a focal point and a symbol of continued mistrust between North and South. Increased violence there could turn mistrust into large-scale conflict.
The United Nations says north and south Sudan have agreed to withdraw “all unauthorized forces” from the disputed and oil-rich Abyei region beginning on Tuesday.
In a statement released late Sunday, the U.N. Mission in Sudan said there was “good will” in talks between the two sides, and that they signed an agreement to complete the pullout by May 17.