The Abyei region of what was formerly a united Sudan was promised a self-determination referendum in the historic Comprehensive Peace Agreement of January 2005, signed by the Khartoum regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The CPA comprised several “protocols,” issue-specific agreements that made the CPA a true guide to peace, if all parties abided by these protocols. The Abyei Protocol, however, was never really accepted by Khartoum and this led eventually to its military annexation of the region in late May 2011—after several months of military preparations that had been regularly reported publicly by the Satellite Sentinel Project and myself.
Abyei assaulted by Khartoum’s regular army forces and Misseriya militia
Abyei continues to fester as Khartoum moves ever-more aggressively to complete annexation of the region, rich in pasturage (if only modest in its oil reserves). The migratory Misseriya Arabs, who have regularly passed through Abyei on the basis of understandings between Ngok Dinka and Misseriya chiefs, were convinced by Khartoum that an Abyei referendum would deny them their transhumance “rights.” This was not true, but both Khartoum’s regular troops and Misseriya militia forces began to establish “military facts on the ground” in January 2011. These were documented in detail, using satellite imagery and ground intelligence, in a timeline for the period leading to the May military seizure (see below).
Abyei at peace
Reuters has very recently reported on Khartoum’s current military efforts to establish Abyei as an integral part of post-secession Sudan:
UN peacekeepers in the disputed region of Abyei along the border of Sudan and South Sudan apprehended someone claiming to be a Sudanese intelligence officer after a deadly attack last month, the UN chief said in a new report. The ownership of Abyei, which has rich pastureland and small oil reserves, was left undecided when South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011. It remains one of the biggest potential flashpoints between the two countries, who have also argued over oil rights and other disputed territories….
If confirmed, the presence of a Sudanese officer with local militia could suggest that Khartoum may be helping armed elements around Abyei coordinate attacks. (Reuters, “Sudanese intel officer captured after attack near Abyei,” [UN/New York] 4 May 2015)
UN investigators, along with Enough Project researchers, found evidence of “ethnic cleansing” in the Abyei area after Khartoum’s military seizure.
The violence with which the people of Abyei were expelled from their homes was immensely destructive
At the same time, there are also numerous reports of road construction and other infrastructure connections to the north. Prior to the recent electoral farce in Sudan, the regime insisted that Abyei was part of the north and that the people of the region could vote in what was notionally a “national election.” Earlier, to ensure that the Dinka Ngok people were denied the extraordinary leadership of Paramount Chief Kuol Deng Kuol, Khartoum and its Misseriya militia allies assassinated Kuol—while under UN protection—exactly two years ago today. Sudan Tribune reported:
Kuol Deng Kuol was Paramount chief of the Nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms of Abyei until his death in May 2013. The former chief died when a convoy he was travelling in with the United Nations Interim Force for Abyei (UNISFA) was ambushed by armed members of the nomadic/migratory Arab Misseriya tribe on as they returned to Abyei town after a visit further north.
There can be little doubt that Khartoum had a hand in the ambush.
Kuol Deng Kuol (L) shaking hands with Misseriya chief Mukhtar Babu Nimr after signing an ill-fated peace agreement (13 January 2011). He was a superb leader of his people.
We hear little about Abyei today, although there is a fine library of reports available at | https://www.scribd.com/Sudan%20North-South%20Border%20Initiative. Occasionally there is impressive reportage, such as Tim Flatman’s January 2015 account. I cite the first several paragraphs largely because they make fully clear that Abyei remains a dangerous flashpoint for conflict, one that could easily provoke renewed north/south conflict. This is unlikely so long as South Sudan remains at war with itself; but in the event of peace, the fate of Abyei may again become central in relations between Khartoum and Juba:
Inaccuracies in WFP report mean foreign aid could be used to support militia settling illegally in Abyei Area | 22 January 2015, Tim Flatman
The settled residents of Abyei wait patiently, but not without frustration, for the international community’s acceptance of the October 2013 Abyei community referendum results.
[The October referendum, although originally proposed by the African Union Peace and Security Council, is unlikely to be recognized by the international community; but there can be no doubt about the meaning or integrity of the virtually unanimous vote for union with South Sudan. Here two civilians casting their vote to join South Sudan—ER.]
There can be neither security nor peace for local residents until the status of their area is resolved. In the meantime, attacks by armed Misseriya militia continue, perpetuating fear, especially in the current dry season where people are vulnerable to attack as they venture into the bush to gather grass and other building materials. Despite this, for those living in Abyei town and surrounding villages life continues: children are returning to school in February, people are continuing to cultivate the land and to rebuild houses.
The World Food Programme’s (WFP) “Abyei Integrated Rapid Food Security and Nutrition Assessment” dated July 2014, makes recommendations benefiting militia posing as civilians in northern parts of Abyei Area, South Sudan. This same militia have recently made attacks on the settled Ngok residents. Last week two men were abducted by the militia near Dungop, and one boy was shot and injured.
The [WFP] assessment recommends the installation of clinics, agro-businesses and boreholes to support their illegal settlements, at a time when the WFP appears to have decreased food distribution to the settled civilians [the Ngok Dinka] in Abyei Area. Such interventions undermine the political solution to the problem of Abyei proposed by the African Union and UN, and risk antagonising the settled community who may look for less peaceful means of bringing resolution to the status of their area.
The people of Abyei fled southward in great numbers following and preceding Khartoum’s military seizure, and ultimate annexation, of the region.
Nearly all went to South Sudan and found themselves in very difficult circumstances
Looting of the homes and possessions of the Dinka Ngok in Abyei town and elsewhere began immediately after Khartoum’s military seizure. Misseriya militia were chiefly responsible.
The international community’s willingness to look away from Abyei and its continuing unrest mirrors the response to events leading up to and including Khartoum’s military seizure of the region in May 2011.
Abyei in historical context
Almost immediately following the signing of the CPA it became clear that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime was reneging on both wealth-sharing and power-sharing protocols. Border delineation and demarcation made no progress because of Khartoum’s recalcitrance, and the security protocol never worked as imagined. Notably, Khartoum continued to support—in violation of the CPA—“Other Armed Groups” (OAG) in South Sudan; this created enormous problems, militarily and politically, for the new interim period Government of South Sudan. This is too often ignored in current discussions of the disaster that Southern leaders have brought upon themselves over the past year and a half.
But the Abyei Protocol was the agreement most consequentially abrogated. Like South Sudan, Abyei was to have had its own self-determination referendum on January 9, 2011; and the result would have been overwhelmingly to join the South if the “residents of Abyei” (the language of the CPA)—overwhelming the Dinka Ngok—had been the ones voting. Khartoum, which had brutally assaulted Abyei Town in May 2008, had been the beneficiary of a July 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), defining Abyei’s borders in a way that moved more of the region into the north (the fact that this ruling was silent on the question of whether oil-rich Heglig to the east was in the north or the South has been largely ignore; see “Where is Heglig?” | 27 April 2012). Still the regime was not satisfied with the PCA ruling, and claims reflecting this began almost immediately among senior officials; despite the “final and binding” nature of the PCA ruling, the issue of Abyei had not been resolved.
Many of the more than 100,000 people who fled to South Sudan from Abyei remain refugees in the country they wish to be part of
The military preparations by Khartoum leading to the two-day campaign that brought the entire region under its military control had been consistently and regularly documented prior to the May 21, 2011 completion of the takeover (the reports below are from the Satellite Sentinel Project and my website: www.sudanreeves.org; the latter begin with “wp.me…” :
“Celebrate Independence for South Sudan! But Remain Vigilant on Abyei,” 13 January 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-AZ
“First Satellite Images Available of SAF Troop Deployments Near Sudan’s Volatile North-South Border,” Satellite Sentinel Project, 27 January 2011 [a number of these troops did indeed deploy to Abyei]
“Satellite Sentinel Project Confirms Deliberate Burning of Third Village in Abyei Region,” Satellite Sentinel Project, 6 March 2011
“SPLM/Abyei Administrator’s account of weapons/personnel used in recent attacks,” 6 March 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Be
“Abyei in Flames: Prospects for Peace Endangered by Diplomatic Incompetence,” 7 March 7 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Bi
“Obama Weak on the Rapidly Escalating Crisis in Abyei,” Dissent Magazine, March 9, 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Bj
“Frontline Abyei: Evidence of Military Escalation in Abyei Region,” 10 March 2011, Satellite Sentinel Project
“Abyei Incursion: Evidence of Northern-Aligned Forces Deployed to Abyei Region,” Satellite Sentinel Project, 22 March 2011
“Range of Attack: Deployment of SAF Attack Helicopters, Tanks Near Abyei,” Satellite Sentinel Project, 7 April, 2011
“Khartoum’s Language on Abyei Becomes More Insistent, More Threatening” | 1 May 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-Br
“Abyei Invasion: Evidence of SAF Incursion into Abyei; and Fact Sheet on Sudan Armed Forces Invasion,” Satellite Sentinel Project, 24 May 2011
“An Abyei Timeline: The Long Road to Khartoum’s Military Invasion,” 27 May 2011 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-By
In October 2013, following the killing of Kuol Deng Kuol, I completed a detailed retrospective chronology of the fate of Abyei (“Abyei: A Brief Annotated Chronology,” Pambazuka News, 29 October 2013 | http://allafrica.com/stories/201311010570.html)]
The fact of a clearly impending military assault on Abyei, in flagrant violation of the CPA, commanded no significant attention among the Western powers—especially the U.S., the UK, and Norway, which had worked so hard to negotiate the CPA. Instead, the Obama administration had begun in the fall of 2010 a hard-pressing, at times “blunt instrument” demand that South Sudan “compromise” beyond what was embodied in the Abyei Protocol (2004) and the July 2009 PCA ruling. Senior officials such as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presidential special envoy for Sudan Scott Gration, and administration surrogate, and current Secretary of State, John Kerry, all put heavy pressure on Juba to give more in the expedient interest of ensuring that the January 2011 referendum for South Sudan was not endangered, regardless of Khartoum’s intransigent refusal to respect the Abyei Protocol and CPA ruling. Khartoum knew all too well how to read the signals sent by this diplomatic heavy-handedness.
Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, said of Abyei at the critical moment that, “a few hundred square miles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress when the fate of millions of people is at stake,” referring to the January 2011 self-determination vote in South Sudan (Reuters [Khartoum], October 25, 2010). In fact, Abyei is approximately 4,000 square miles, even after the PCA ruling—more than three times the size of the state of Rhode Island, which neighbors Kerry’s own home state of Massachusetts.
Secretary of State, and former senatorial ambassador for the Obama administration, John Kerry. His ignorance of the size of Abyei —“a few hundred square miles”—was simply shocking, given what was being asked of Juba and ultimately the people of Abyei.
Obama’s special envoy Scott Gration, declaring that now is the time for “compromise” on both sides, insisted in October 2010—just days before an aborted meeting in Addis Ababa scheduled to discuss Abyei—that,
“There’s no more time to waste. The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise [over Abyei]. The entire world is watching and will make judgments based on how the parties approach these talks, on how they act in the next couple of months.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69D6EV20101022)
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that,
“Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei.” (http://blogs.state.gov/sudan/index.php/site/entry/clinton_unsc_sudan)
The message from the U.S. to Juba was clear: “compromise on Abyei, or we won’t support you as vigorously.” It is a message that was received and has not been forgotten. (See here in particular Douglas Johnson, “The Road Back from Abyei.”)
The Obama administration role in signaling to Khartoum that there would be no real consequences for a military seizure of Abyei continues to rankle with the government and people of the South. It has diminished U.S. influence over events in South Sudan, and it is a grim irony that Secretary of State John Kerry, who as senator dismissed the significance of Abyei, should yesterday be making unctuous comments about the need for peace in South Sudan—one day before the second anniversary of the assassination of Kuol Deng Kuol.
No one disputes that peace in the South is desperately needed; and certainly the vast share of responsibility for continued conflict lies with the political leadership of the armed forces who have made life for civilians a ghastly nightmare. But the voice of the Obama administration would carry a good deal further if it had been consistently fair and balanced in its responses to Khartoum’s efforts to undermine the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, particularly on the issue of Abyei and Khartoum’s long-term support of “Other Armed Groups” in the South, before and after the signing of the CPA.