East Africa: Abyei - Sudan and South Sudan's New Chance to Solve Old Disputes

The area of Abyei, on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, has been disputed since 2011.
21 October 2019

In the excitement around Sudan's evolving political order and the concerns around South Sudan's challenges, less attention has been paid to some long-standing contentious issues that have the potential to create new havoc. One of those issues is the disputed area between Sudan and South Sudan known as Abyei. The opportunity presented by the establishment of a new civilian government in Sudan following the fall of Omar al-Bashir offers fresh hope that Abyei can be freshly addressed.

Lying on the border between the two countries, Abyei has been a disputed area since South Sudan become independent in 2011. In the run-up to the independence referendum, Khartoum and Juba argued fiercely over whether the territory ought to belong to the north or south. The outcome was initially seen as particularly significant due to the presence of large oil reserves in the region, though after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that most oil fields fell outside Abyei, the focus shifted to the area's economic and sociopolitical importance.

Eventually, the two parties agreed that Abyei's status would be decided by a separate referendum in January 2011 on the same date as the vote on South Sudan's independence. The poll was delayed, however, due to disagreements over who would be eligible to vote. South Sudan argued that only the Ngok Dinka, who permanently reside in Abyei, should be allowed to vote. Sudan insisted that the Misseriya, a pastoral Arab group that lives in the area seasonally, should also be eligible.

This point is crucial. According to a 2008 estimate, the population of West Kordofan state, the homeland of the Misseriya, was 1.3 million. The population of the Ngok Dinka was just 200,000. This means that if the Misseriya voted in a referendum, Abyei would almost certainly become part of Sudan, given that West Kordofan is a state in Sudan. If only the Ngok Dinka were eligible, the result would go the other way. In fact, in a unilateral and unsanctioned vote held in October 2013, the Ngok Dinka voted almost unanimously to join South Sudan.

Amidst this ongoing disagreement, the status of Abyei has long been deadlocked. To break it, Sudan has proposed establishing a joint administration in the area, but South Sudan insists that a referendum is the only solution.

Replacing winner-takes-all with compromise

As things stand, Sudan and South Sudan each control parts of the area, but the only armed force allowed in Abyei is the UN Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). This almost exclusively Ethiopian peacekeeping mission has helped prevent the resumption of a full-scale border war, though it has not been able to stop violence completely. There have been occasional deadly assaults on civilians and peacekeepers. Most recently in July 2019, unknown assailants attacked UNISFA peacekeepers, killing one soldier and five civilians.

In order to move forward, the issue of Abyei's future requires internationally supported mediation. Some have suggested that such a mediation should support the establishment of two separate administrations for the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya respectively, but such a temporary measure would only postpone rather than fix the problem.

The best way to truly resolve the issue might be for Sudan and South Sudan return to the table in order to compromise. They could agree that regardless of which country Abyei eventually joins, its resources - such as any minerals or oil - will be shared according to a formula to be negotiated. This would cover both goods that have already been discovered and those that might be uncovered in the future.

The two parties could also agree that whether Abyei becomes part of Sudan or South Sudan, the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka will continue to share land as they have historically for countless generations. This resolution would allow for the continued integration of the two groups' livelihoods, an issue of great importance to these local communities but often of little importance to officials in Khartoum and Juba. On this front, Misseriya and Ngok Dinka elders can negotiate compromises regarding resource-sharing. Until recently, traditional agreements allowed both groups to use the land, water points and cross-border resources, as well as helping to maintain peace.

This kind of compromise might allow for a stable solution to the Abyei question. Along the border areas of Sudan and South Sudan, economic motives and access to resources are the main drivers of conflict and disputes. By separating out these factors and including representatives from Juba, Khartoum, the Ngok Dinka, and the Misseriya in talks, a new resolution based on sharing - rather than forcing a winner-takes-all contest - is possible.

The new political dispensation in Sudan offers both sides a fresh opportunity to discuss Abyei as part of larger efforts to end all conflicts between the two neighbours and prevent future escalations along the border. As well as resolving much uncertainty, this would allow for greater economic cooperation and its associated benefits for both sides.

Building on the recent visit of Sudan's new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to South Sudan, the two governments should aim to build mutually-beneficial economic relations and support peace initiatives in both countries. Resolving the dispute over Abyei could be a test case for a new cooperative and economic-based approach to relations between these two countries, whose history of volatility requires a new way forward.

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