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Abyei: Sudan's fault line

Time (GMT +01) 17:00 18:30


Chris Johnson - Head of UNMIS, Abyei


Paul Murphy - Head of Europe Programme, Saferworld


Sara Pantuliano - Research Fellow, ODI

This meeting was conducted under Chatham House rules and what follows is a summary of key points.

The Root Causes of the Current Crisis

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has special provisions for the ‘Three Areas: Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan (including the Nuba Mountains) and Abyei. Abyei is a transition zone between North and South, Christianity and Islam, the settled and those who migrate and National Congress Party (NPC) and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) control. Abyei has traditionally been an area of cattle owning groups: the Dinka (from the south), who are prominent within the SPLA and the Missiriyya (from the North). In the negotiations leading up to the CPA, Abyei was always a sticking point. Abyei holds a vast amount of Sudan’s oil. However, the pipelines and refineries, essential for the extraction oil are situated in the North. The agreement should have identified mechanisms to share the wealth between the North and the South long term. However the Abyei Protocol, did not attempt to tackle any of the disputed issues. It was only ever meant as a resolution for the interim period between the signing of the CPA in 2005 and the eventual 2011 referendum both on the status of Southern Sudan (whether to remain part of a united Sudan or secede) and Abyei (remain in Southern Kordofan State in Northern Sudan or join Bahr el-Ghazal State in Southern Sudan).

The Abyei Protocol was different from the negotiations reached for Southern Sudan and the other two transitional states. Firstly, the Abyei Protocol gave the inhabitants dual citizenship of both the North and the South. Secondly, Abyei had no recognised boundaries, thus the Abyei boundary commission was instructed to report on where the boundaries would be set. The commission was made up of 15 members: 5 NPC, 5 SPLM and 5 independent. In July 2005, the Commission gave their report which was rejected by both the NPC and the Misseriyya on the grounds that it overstepped its mandate. The independent experts had concluded that the 1905 border is the same as the 1965 border. However the NCP and Misseriyya again disputed this. In fact the Misseriyya would oppose a boundary anywhere that divided their zone of annual migration from the North where they spend the rainy season to the South where they move for the dry season.

The Misseriyya were also discontent because they were underrepresented at crucial meetings on these issues. Unlike the Dinka who are very influential in the SPLM, the Missiriyya did not enjoy the same position of influence within the NCP. Thus the Missiriya were not represented at the discussion in Abyei in Navasha. Secondly, the CPA had envisaged the merger of the state of Western Kordofan (inhabited and controlled by the Missiriyya) into Southern Kordofan thus decreasing the Misseriyya’s political power. Thirdly, the Missiriya’s were frustrated by not being paid by the NCP for their participation in the North-South struggle.

Recent Developments

For 3 years Abyei has remained in a state of tension:
frequent meetings between local tribal leaders have helped resolve contentious issues at the local level yet the dispute over Abyei between the NCP and the SPLM remains. The absence of a fixed boundary means Abyei has not formed an administration to govern.

During the past two wars Abyei has been nearly completely depopulated: 80% of its people now live outside the town in the surrounding IDP camps. As there was no government in Abyei and UNMIS’ movements were restricted, the SPLA itself facilitated the return of many IDPs to Abyei.

The violent confrontation between the SPLA and the SAF that occurred in Abyei last month was ignited by a small incident when one man was shot that spiralled out of control. No one knows which side started the conflict. As a result of the 5 days of brutal fighting tens of thousands of people were displaced, mainly to the South but also to the North, the market centre was razed to the ground and the surrounding area was 60% destroyed.

Towards a Solution

The current crisis does not mean an end to the CPA. Neither side wants to return to full scale war. An agreement was signed which introduced a new integrated North-South police force. A six month timeframe, with the possibility of a three month extension, was also agreed to decide the boundaries of Abyei. Both the SPLA and the SAF are set to withdraw from Abyei on the 30th June.

UNMIS is to be given freedom of movement. However, it is evident that the effectiveness of any peacekeeping force is highly dependent on whether it is welcomed by the country. That makes UNMIS’ work in Sudan ever more challenging as they were not welcomed by the SAF who do not want any UNMIS presence in the North. UNMIS’ effectiveness is reliant on cooperation from all parties.

Now it is imperative that all relevant Sudanese groups with the backing of the international community uphold the CPA and determine Abyei’s borders in the allotted timeframe.


In the discussion the question was raised about Edward Lino’s, the SPLM representative in Abyei, role in the build up to the recent crisis. The situation in Abyei had been becoming tense on a political level over the previous 6-9 months as a result of the government’s failure to appoint an administrator for the Interim Period of the peace agreement. The delay in establishing the administration in Abyei was one of the reasons why SPLA withdrew from government. The government of Southern Sudan themselves appointed an administrator. The Missiriyya leadership did agree to work with Lino on local issues, proving that the people can solve matters locally. The interface between local and political issues however remains a grave problem.

Discussion also covered the point that in Sudan there is no peace to be kept. In response to this it was argued that although there are worrying signs of a possible relapse to war at present, neither side wants this. However, it was recognised that neither side trust the current peace. The instability of the peace agreement thus means that currently there is no Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) to be spoken of.

Attention then turned to the reasons for the deadlock in the latest peace agreement. Essentially the government can make any agreement they want but if the tribes on the ground do not like it, it will not happen. Thus if a peace is going to work it must include the communities on the ground from the beginning. When the agreement on Abyei was reached between the NPC and the SPLA, the Dinka were not directly involved and the Missiriyya were neither directly or indirectly included. Furthermore it was recognised that once the CPA was signed, the international community did not uphold their responsibility to ensure it was effectively implemented, instead they were distracted by other media-grabbing issues such as Darfur. It was reinforced that the way to end the crisis must be through mediation and diplomacy, as doubts were raised about the ability and effectiveness of a Chapter VI mandate peace-keeping operation to protect 50,000 scattered citizens.

The event was ended, thanking everyone for their participation in an active discussion. Attendees were also informed of research to be published in the coming month, such as a study on the return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees in Juba town and in Jonglei State.


Recent fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the contested border town of Abyei has resulted in massive destruction and the displacement of over 50,000 civilians. This has been the most serious incident between the two warring parties since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

At this ODI event, Chris Johnson, the head of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in Abyei, will provide a briefing on the current situation in the region, including the humanitarian challenges posed by the displacement of civilians and the prospects of the roadmap agreement recently signed by the parties. The seminar will also benefit from the presence of other long term Sudan analysts who will discuss the role of national and international actors in responding to the current threats to peace in Sudan.