Abyei: The Abscess Threatening the Sudan

by J.PETER PHAM, PHD December 9, 2010
Marking the countdown to the South Sudan referendum in Juba.
If all goes as planned, exactly one month from today, on January 9, 2011, voters in the ten states of southern Sudan as well as southerners in living in the northern part of the country and abroad will begin casting their ballots in a referendum which will determine whether they will remain part of a united country or secede to form their own independent state. Having just recently returned from a trip to both parts of Sudan, I can attest that there is no doubt on which side of the question the overwhelming majority of South Sudanese will come down. After more than half a century of neglected development, political marginalization, and two civil wars—the second of which lasted more than two decades and only ended after two million people, most of them southerners, were killed and millions more were displaced—it is hardly surprising that South Sudan will opt for secession. However, it won’t be what happens during the seven days scheduled for the plebiscite, but rather what will not be happening that may determine whether there is the remaining six months of the interim period mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is a transition to a permanent peace or a return to war: the Abyei referendum.
According to the relevant Protocol between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) which was ultimately incorporated into the peace accord, a referendum is supposed to be held in Abyei simultaneous with the vote on self-determination for South Sudan:
The proposition voted on in the separate ballot shall present residents of Abyei with the following choices irrespective of the results of the southern referendum: (a) that Abyei retain its special administrative status in the north; (b) that Abyei be part of Bahr el Ghazal [one of the southern states].
The United States which not only brokered the CPA, but actually drafted the Abyei Protocol—then-presidential special envoy, former Senator John Danforth, presented the text to the principal negotiators, Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and SPLA/M Chairman Dr. John Garang, in March 2004 and obtained their agreement to it as the basis for the resolution of the conflict over the region—has already admitted that a referendum cannot be organized in Abyei in time. At a press briefing exactly one month ago, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley essentially declared the issue reopened for discussion:
Well, I think it’s a recognition of the calendar. The parties have agreed on many of the details on the referendum on South Sudan. They have not agreed on the details of the referendum on Abyei. So while it is theoretically possible that the referendum could still go on schedule regarding Abyei, we recognize that that is increasingly problematic. We are not relieving the parties of their obligation. Today, they’re obliged to cooperate and schedule a referendum on Abyei on January 9. We’re not taking anybody off the hook. But we recognize that given that there is not agreement between North and South on the details of that referendum, if they are able to arrive at a different course of action, that is up to them.
A month later, negotiations led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki—a risible choice for an envoy if there ever was one, considering not only his coddling of Zimbabwe’s thuggish despot Robert Mugabe, but also the fact that his own African National Congress party turning him out of office before his term expired underscores his lack of standing in his own country—have produced nothing. A referendum commission has not even been appointed to begin preparations for a vote in Abyei, much less organize one. Talks earlier this week mediated by Mbeki did not even get around to addressing the formation of a referendum commission. Just from a logistical point of view, the challenge of organizing a vote next month has become insurmountable given the time that remains, even if Mbeki had somehow managed to get the two sides to agree on appointing the commission members to oversee the Abyei plebiscite.
Protesters in Juba demonstrate against one of the U.S. special envoy’s proposals regarding Abyei, November 4, 2010.
Moreover, significant issues have not been resolved such as who would have the right to vote in such a poll. The CPA stipulates that only “residents of Abyei”—defined as “the members of the Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area”—shall vote in the plebiscite. The problem, undoubtedly not contemplated at the time the peace deal was signed—at least by those negotiating in good faith—was that their would be much of an issue over who the non-Ngok Dinka “other Sudanese residing in the area” might be. After all, the agreement defined Abyei as “the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan [a northern state] in 1905” by British colonial officials.Aruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague in 2009further delimited the district’s extent to all of 10,459 square kilometers, an area just slightly larger than the state of Delaware. Now, however, the regime in Khartoum has complicated matters by insisting that the Arab Missiriya Humr nomads whose seasonal migrations take them through the Abyei district have a right to vote as well. The problem is that while the Ngok Dinka would vote to throw their lot with their kin, who make up the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, the Missiriya worry that if the region seceded, being northerners, they would lose access to their dry season grazing along the Bahr al-Arab (Kiir River) flowing through the southern part of the territory. Thus the Missiriya would likely vote for Abyei remaining in the North. Thus opening the voter rolls to these nomads not only defies the commonsense definition of resident implicitly endorsed by the text of the CPA, but would turn the Abyei referendum into a free-for-all. Just last weekend, Missiriya chieftains set up their own parallel “government” in Abyei in a not very subtle attempt to manipulate the status quo.
Why so much discord overan area equivalent to just four-tenths of one percent of the total Sudanese land mass? While it is true, as is often mentioned in the media, that the Abyei district has considerable petroleum resources—the Diffra oilfield, operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a joint venture whose largest shareholder is the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), is in the middle of territory and the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline traverses it—the real motive for the dispute is political calculus, not material gain. After all, the PCA judgment redrew the boundaries of Abyei to cede several major oil production areas to the North, including the Heglig, Bamboo, and Toma oilfields.
On the South Sudanese side, a number of prominent leaders are ethnic Ngok Dinka with family roots in Abyei, including Presidential Affairs Minister Luka Biong Deng and Regional Cooperation Minister Deng Alor Kuol. Other leaders, including Government of South Sudan (GoSS) President Salva Kiir, himself a Bor Dinka, recognize the importance of the larger Ngok Dinka constituency and have staked considerable political capital on the retrocession of their nine chiefdoms to the South. Rational or irrational, the issue has become one of intense significance to many southerners. While I was in Juba last month, I even encountered a large street protest with rather ordinary demonstrators shouting angrily over what they thought was a betrayal of Abyei by the current U.S. special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration.
Meanwhile, in the North, the Missiriya are as politically significant to the Khartoum regime as their Ngok Dinka rivals are to the GoSS in Juba. During the Second Sudanese Civil War (1982-2005), the Missiriya formed the backbone of Khartoum’s military effort, joining in great numbers the so-called Popular Defense Forces which were the primary organ for the ethnic and religious cleansing of populations deemed suspect by the regime as well as the enthusiastic implementation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP, formerly the National Islamic Front) agenda of Arab and Muslim supremacy. The Swiss-based nongovernmental organization Small Arms Survey reported in October that it had obtained documents showing that Khartoum was once again arming the Missiriya, supplying them with AK-47s as well as 66 mm and 75 mm mortars. Moreover, facing a potential crisis of legitimacy with its core constituency for having lost the south, the NCP can hardly risk being likewise blamed for allowing Abyei to “get away” without getting anything in return.
If all this was not enough, there may be another factor at play. Knowing well both the passion which the territory inspires in the South and the potentially nasty political recriminations its loss would provoke there, Khartoum is likely also viewing Abyei as a potential bargaining chip to extract further concessions in the wake of a South Sudan referendum whose results are a foregone conclusion. After all, as I noted last week in an analysis for The National Interest Online, the breakup of Sudan will leave Khartoum in severely reduced circumstances and, potentially, a failed state. That, at least, appears to be the goal, assuming that developments can be managed. However, with armed forces, both regular and irregular, massing around the area, the possibility that just one spark ignites a wider conflagration should not be underestimated—recall that it was just in May 2008 that fighting in the same area left the town of Abyei burned to the ground, some 25,000 of its citizens homeless, and nearly sent the entire country hurling back into civil war.
  The author, Dr. J. Peter Pham (right), meeting with South Sudanese Regional Cooperation Minister Deng Alor Kuol (center), in Juba, November 3, 2010. The minister is a native of Abyei.
Although its critics on both the left and the right have enjoyed many a field day criticizing the Obama administration for its management of the Sudan dossier—and I have at times had reason to join them—it would be churlish not to acknowledge that it has long recognized the importance of the Abyei issue. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly articulated her concern that “preparations for the referendum on Abyei have fallen behind schedule and tensions will continue to rise.” Special Envoy Gration and Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the head of the negotiations unit, have advanced a number of proposals addressing the various contentious issues in Abyei, including citizenship, settlement and movement rights within the territory, economic activities, security cooperation, and the sharing of revenues from natural resources. The problem, alas, is that any of these presumes that the issue can be dealt with objectively and rationally. After remarkably candid conversations with senior officials in both Khartoum and Juba, I am not altogether sure that the dispute has not been invested with such disproportionate political significance and emotion that a reasonable settlement has become virtually unattainable.
In this column space almost three years agobefore the violence in Abyei, before Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, before the arbitration on the territory’s boundaries, before the sham election in Sudan earlier this year, before the South Sudan referendum even looked like it might actually take place—I observed that “one can hardly exaggerate the stakes which hinge on the ultimate fate of Abyei.” At the time, one critic took me to task for supposedly getting carried away. In retrospect, my remark may have been an understatement. The reality is that unless this abscess is lanced, it could well poison everything.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributor J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

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