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Abyei – the litmus test for Sudan’s peace

Time (GMT +00) 10:30 12:00

Nick Astbury
- Head of the Sudan Unit, FCO/DFID

Ambassador Al Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed
- Chief government negotiator on Abyei

Hon. Arop Madut Arop - MP for Abyei in the Parliament of Southern Sudan

Dr. Sara Pantuliano
- Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Ambassador Al Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed began his presentation by emphasising that, if Southern Sudan chose to secede following January’s referendum, Abyei would play a vital role in sustaining peace. He then explained the importance of the region. Abyei is the only area in Northern Sudan with a southern tribe (the British transferred the region to the north in colonial times) and has become a melting pot of northern (the Misseriyya) and southern tribes (the Dinka), which have overcome differences of language, religion and livelihoods to live together peacefully.

In 2004, the Ambassador explained, the Abyei protocol forming part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) permitted the redrawing of the region’s borders on condition that Abyei retained its special status; that it remained a ‘bridge’ uniting the North and the South; that the two communities shared its resources equitably (with 2% of oil revenues going to the Misseriyya and Dinka respectively), and that the administration would be shared. It was also agreed that the Dinka and all Sudanese residing in the area should cast votes in a separate secession poll. The border demarcation drawn up by the Abyei Border Commission (ABC) was rejected outright by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) as it included all of the oil fields in the North. The case was put to arbitration in The Hague, where the government’s position was upheld.

The Ambassador then highlighted some of the contested issues. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) felt that only the Ngok Dinka and full-time residents should have the right to vote in the referendum. This excluded nomadic tribes, which made up 90% of the Misseriyya in the region. The various communities were brought together to discuss these issues. The Ngok Dinka elders proposed that those Misseriyyawho stay in the area for at least eight months a year should be eligible to vote, but the Misseriyyafelt that this did not take into account their movements, which were dependent on the rains. The United States then proposed that residents who stayed for 185 days or six months and five days should be given the right to vote. This was however rejected by the SPLM. When South African President Thabo Mbeki took over as Chairperson of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, he proposed a solution that partitioned the area, whilst at the same time maintaining links between the two new zones, in order to preserve and respect the long history of coexistence between the various constituents of Abyei. Although the NCP accepted this solution, the SPLM did not. Talks subsequently collapsed and conflict in the area resumed. Negotiations are resuming at the highest levels, with the personal involvement of President Bashir and Vice-President Kiir.

The Honorable Arop Madut Arop began hispresentation by reiterating that Abyei was the litmus test for peace in Sudan. He too discussed the Abyei protocol in the CPA and the Abyei Border Commission (ABC) report, explaining that, when the Commission presented its final report, the NCP rejected it. As the government began to implement the agreements set out in the CPA, negotiations on Abyei reached a deadlock, leading to the Hague arbitration.

Two years later, in 2010, preparations began to hold a referendum on Abyei’s future status. The Abyei Area Referendum Commission was meant to be headed by a southerner/SPLM member, with the chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission drawn from the NCP. Eventually the Vice-President of Southern Sudan, DrRiek Machar, was chosen to head the commission, of which the Honorable Mr Arop was himself a member. The sticking point of the negotiations over the Abyei Area referendum has been defining who is a citizen of Abyei, and who has the right to vote in the referendum. The SPLM believed that citizenship should be given to the members of the nine chieftainships of the Ngok Dinka, and did not agree that it should be extended to the Misseriyya. These disputes are still ongoing, and the Ngok Dinka are desperate to find a solution. The Honorable Mr Arop concluded that the NCP were holding Abyei hostage and stalling on negotiations in order to benefit from its oil and natural resources. He stressed the need for negotiations to focus on the people whose lives would be most directly affected.

Dr Sara Pantuliano began her presentation by stating that the challenges faced by migrating pastoralist groups and the tensions that had arisen between communities holding different levels of citizenship rights were not unique to Sudan. Although many countries had found solutions to these problems, there was still learning to be done on how to manage these tensions. Ultimately, if there was no agreement on the management of Abyei tensions were likely to persist regardless of the type of agreement made, whether through referendum or negotiations between the parties.

Dr Pantuliano then gave country-specific examples where cross-border agreements had been made. Pastoralist parliaments existed in Finland and Russia, where access for migrating pastoralists was negotiated and livelihoods made secure. Cameroon and Nigeria agreed at the diplomatic level to resolve competing territorial claims on the Bokassi Peninsula. Cameroon took the territory, but both countries agreed that it would be jointly managed and its oil revenues shared. This helped minimise clashes over demarcation decisions, though citizenship arrangements were not clearly defined and Nigerians in Cameroon became second-class citizens without the protection of the state. Mali and Mauritania came to an agreement concerning transhumance between the two countries by regulating crossing times, establishing entry and exit posts, improving the security of livestock and providing livestock vaccinations to manage the spread of disease. Similarly, Burkina Faso and Niger set up a joint commission to ensure the safe migration of livestock. In 1975 ECOWAS established a protocol on the free movement of all citizens, allowing them to establish residency for up to 90 days in member states. This was revised in 1986 and expanded in 2000 to include pastoralists, who were issued with livestock passports and transhumance certificates. The state that receives them must provide reception zones and must be prepared for the reception of livestock. Problems have however arisen concerning extortion by border agents, language difficulties and documentation.

Dr Pantuliano concluded by asserting that an agreement on Abyei must ensure continued cross-border access for nomadic groups. Local-level dialogue with communities and chiefs must continue, and must be incorporated into high-level international negotiations to ensure that a comprehensive solution can be identified. The terms of any agreement would need to include border crossing points and times, livestock routes, watering places, resting places, normal grazing areas, reserve grazing areas and emergency grazing areas. Most importantly, a shared management system would need to be negotiated that guaranteed the safety of people crossing into Abyei.

The meeting was then opened to the floor.

A representative of the Government for Southern Sudan in the UK noted that it was important to put the safety of the people of Sudan first. A solution needed to be reached before 9 July. ‘The people would like to see Abyei be part of southern Sudan. People are singing songs of war but we must create an atmosphere whereby we don’t go back to war. If we cannot find a solution, we must take this to the UN.’

A member of the NCP asked how the Misseriyya could be excluded from any deal given that the wealth-sharing agreement stipulated that they should receive 2% of oil revenues and that the administration should be shared. In reply, the Honorable Mr Arop said that the Misseriyya would continue to receive their share of oil revenues, and that the current terms of the power-sharing agreement should be reversed, with 52% of administrative power going to the SPLM and 48% to the NCP. The Misseriyya would have a migratory commission and a representative in the Abyei administration. The Honorable Mr Arop reiterated that the SPLM did not object to the Misseriyya having a representative, but that they did not like representatives such as Ambassador Dirdiri, who came from El Fula, over 300 miles from Abyei. He added that the Misseriyya sometimes had racist ideas but were of Sudanese identity. The Northern Sudanese must be progressive and share power, he concluded.

Ambassador Dirdiri did not feel that the issue of Abyei should be referred to the UN, and was not aware of the UN resolving any such disputes in the past. The government of Sudan had received a resolution from the UN Security Council asking the parties to resolve the issue themselves. The UN could never enforce a solution. He praised the presentation made by Dr Pantuliano offering examples of regulation of cross-border movement in other countries, adding that the issue of movement by pastoralists was under-researched and very important. ‘We have to coexist, move freely and live together. It is an issue of contested identities, with both identities being valid.’

Kathryn Colvin, Clerk to the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development, raised the issue of religion. Peter Moszynski, a journalist and aid worker, asked about the regional implications of the Abyei dispute, the process of popular consultation in Southern Kordofan and whether the issue of the Heglig oil fields had been resolved by the Hague court.

Ambassador Dirdiri responded that religion was not an issue. He explained that the current Ngok Dinka chief was a Muslim, and there were a sizable number of Ngok Dinka Muslims. Regarding the issue of the main oil field and the Court of Arbitration, although the SPLM had initially said that they would lay claim to the Heglig field when it was awarded to the North, no further action had been taken and no claims had yet been made. Regarding popular consultations, these had been conducted in Blue Nile State, and both parties were committed to popular consultation in the region and were fully committed to the full implementation of the CPA. If the referendum on the Abyei Area could not take place, the parties would continue to negotiate until a final solution was reached. Unilateral action by the SPLM, the Ambassador concluded, would be the end of peace in Sudan.


While much effort has gone into ensuring that the Southern Sudan referendum went ahead on time, the escalating tensions in the contested border region of Abyei serve as an important reminder of the significant challenges that still remain to a successful transition to long-term peace in Sudan.

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 and has traditionally been an area of cattle owning groups: the Dinka (from the south), and the Missiriyya (from the North). In the negotiations leading up to the CPA, Abyei was always a sticking point and has since continued to be a contested region. Abyei holds a vast amount of Sudan’s oil. However, the pipelines and refineries, essential for the extraction of the oil, are situated in the North.

Abyei, as the rest of the Three Areas, was supposed to be the litmus test for a united Sudan and for the wealth- and power-sharing arrangements set out by the CPA. The agreement should have identified mechanisms to share the wealth between the North and the South long term but the Abyei Protocol did not tackle any of the disputed issues and was only ever meant as a resolution for the interim period following the signing of the CPA in 2005. The Abyei referendum, on whether Abyei should remain in Southern Kordofan State in Northern Sudan or join Bahr el-Ghazal State in Southern Sudan, was to take place at the same time as the Southern Sudan vote. However, the vote has been delayed and no future date has been set. The borders have also yet to be demarcated.

At this timely event, as the results of the South Sudan referendum begin to emerge, senior NCP and SPLM commentators from Abyei discuss the future of the region.