The overwhelming vote by South Sudanese in the January referendum for secession marked the beginning of the end of a long walk to freedom by the people of the semi-autonomous region.
Among other things, the vote also marked the first step towards addressing numerous pressing issues before 9 July 2011, when South Sudan becomes independent. Of these post-referendum issues, the status of Abyei has more than before emerged as the most thorny and contentious.
The recent occupation of Abyei by Northern troops, following an incident on May 19 where soldiers from the South`s Sudan People`s Liberation Army (SPLA) are said to have ambushed UN-escorted northern troops in Abyei, thus inviting retaliation from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), points to the volatility of the situation and the fact that Abyei will be a key variable in any renewed conflict between the north and south.
Owing to disagreements between the North and South over who is eligible to vote, the Abyei referendum – stipulated in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement - could not take place, thus, leaving the region’s status in contention between both sides. The build up of troops on both sides, since January 2011, has resulted in the abovementioned occupation by northern forces and the dissolution of the Abyei Administrative Council - a move which represents a de facto breakdown of joint oversight over the region and a total takeover by the North.
Since taking over Abyei, all calls by the international community for the North to withdraw its troops have proved futile, thus leading to a stalemate. The emergence of tensions around Abyei reflects warnings in secession theory that whenever separation is used as a means of resolving intra-state socio-economic and political concerns, emerging issues around borderline and political geography become the most poignant part capable of opening up a poisonous Pandora’s box.
In Sudan, critical issues surrounding security and natural resources have exacerbated tensions around other borderline areas as well. The areas, including Abyei, are rich in natural resources and have a huge development potential. About 80 per cent of semi-mechanized farming in Sudan is in the borderline region. In addition, owing to wartime alliances and subsequent emerging trends of conflict and possible irredentist claims in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Kordofan areas, both sides appear to be using local populations as proxies to promote their respective interests and in appeasing their political constituencies. Consequently, the border belt has become very militarised and subsequently damaging the much-needed socio-economic cooperation between the north and south by limiting transport and trade through the over 15 major roads connecting northern and southern regions.
For Abyei, in particular, while the issue of resources (actual and speculative oil deposits, fertile land, grazing fields and water resources) are among the overt reasons motivating the tensions, there are other latent factors around the symbolic value of the region to the SPLM, in particular. A number of key leading figures within the SPLM come from Abyei thus making the Movement’s attachment to the region unflinching. On the part of the North, it can be argued that the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in the North might be using Abyei as a tactical manoeuvre designed either to delay the border demarcation or to deal with its own internal problems by diverting the public’s attention in the north to threats occurring away from the centre. Moreover, by keeping control over Abyei, Khartoum may hope to start from a strong bargaining position in any negotiations over the disputed area. It is for these reasons that some have argued that the NCP has all along been committed to protecting its power rather than addressing the root causes of the problems in its peripheral areas, including Abyei.
In the midst of the current stalemate around the northern presence in Abyei, however, the most important first step forward is for the international community to insist on an unconditional withdrawal of troops by the North from the Abyei region. Giving that thousands of people have been displaced, looted and fear-battered, the withdrawal of northern troops will pave the way for the return of displaced people, reconstruction of destroyed settlements and the resumption of normality to the region.
Secondly, the Abyei Administrative Council will need to be reinstated and left to function without interferences from the North or South. This will constitute full withdrawal and the lifting of northern control. Once the North withdraws, there will be the need for the deployment of a robust UN/AU observer presence in the area so that the international community can closely monitor progress on the ground as well as assist with impartial implementation of important issues.
Thirdly, the two sides will have to drop their respective claims to the region and consider the status of Abyei as a ‘negotiable project’ to be mediated by the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). From there, the normal processes of the AUHIP can take over and deal with the core issue of the status of Abyei.
Within the latter, the CPA has a clear roadmap for the resolution of the Abyei impasse. This is through the establishment of the (a) Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) to help define and demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, (b) a clear definition of residents of Abyei, and (c) a provision for a plebiscite in which residents of the region will decide on the fate. The only sustainable way forward for peace in Abyei lies with the latter. It will be unfair for the people not to have the right to decide but be the ones at the forefront of the confrontations.
To achieve this, there has got to be pressure on both sides to respect the findings of the ABC, and allow the Abyei referendum to take place. Giving the entrenched positions of the North and South, anything short of the will of the people on the ground may only turn the region into a perpetual political tinderbox for the two parties.
Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Nairobi Office and Emmanuel Kisiangani, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria Office.