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Sudan and South Sudan's unfinished business: Abyei and Southern Kordofan

Time (GMT +01) 14:30 16:30
Hero image description: Village residents flee fighting in Abyei Image credit:UN Photo/Tim McKulka Image license:Creative Commons

Dr Luka Biong Deng - former Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the Government of National Unity in Sudan
HE Abdullahi Alzareg - Sudanese Ambassador to the UK


HE Norbert Braakhuis - Dutch Ambassador to Sudan


Wendy Fenton - Humanitarian Practice Network Coordinator

Dr Luka Biong Deng  opened by noting that the phrase ‘unfinished business’ refers not only to Abyei and Southern Kordofan but also to the unfinished business of transforming Sudan and building good relations between the North and South.  He then focused onthe Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)  as the starting point for addressing these issues. Though he recognised that the National  Congress Party (NCP) had  had the political courage to accept the peace agreement and the South’s right to self-determination, he raised the following concerns:

  • The NCP might not have the political will to adhere to the CPA.
  • The invasion of Abyei had called into question President Bashir’s commitment to peace.
  • The NCP is divided and close to collapse. This trend is worrying as it could incite radicalism, even in the military.

He emphasised that the leadership of the NCP is a liability to their own party, the people of Sudan and global security at large. This should be recognised as an important time for the international community to  object strongly to the human rights abuses the leadership is perpetrating.

Dr Deng moved onto the topic of South Sudan. While he rejected scenarios that predicted state failure, he did highlight four key challenges faced by the country:

1) South Sudan lacks necessary governance capacity to manage its large oil resources.

2) Reform of the security sector and demobilisation of combatants in South Sudan is crucial, but military expenditure will only drop if North Sudan stabilises its own military expenditure.

3) The Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM) would, as a liberation movement, have a monopoly on power for some time to come. For this reason supporting civil society will be very important in order to place checks and balances on the government. 

4) Ensuring economic viability will be a challenge that necessitates reform to the oil sector and modernisation of agriculture.

Lastly, he emphasised that unless South Sudan was a viable state the CPA would not succeed.

Dr Deng concluded with two points about the disputed territories. He maintained that it was critical to focus on Abyei as resolution of the conflict there would build confidence between the North and the South. Regarding South Kordofan, Dr Deng said the engineering of the election and subsequent attempt to cleanse the area of SPLM/A supporters through aerial bombardment has raised the stakes of any possible consultation, ‘placing regime change on the agenda’.

HE Abdullahi Alazreg  also began by emphasising appreciation for the CPA and lauded the role of the North Sudanese government in ending the long period of conflict. Peace in Sudan, he said, is crucial for not just the Sudanese people, but for regional and even global security. Ambassador Alazreg put forward his view of the challenges facing South Sudan:

  • The leadership of South Sudan does not have the experience necessary for civilian administration. He made reference to alleged large scale corruption and embezzlement in connection with oil revenues.
  • The role that tribalism plays in South Sudanese politics. The SPLM/A is not prepared to assume the role of civil, political entity and share power with other tribes such as the Shilluk.
  • The basis for a cordial relationship between the two countries was not being established.

The Ambassador went on to explain his perspective on the conflict in Abyei, which arose from the Ngok Dinka and nomadic Messiriya both claiming to be the indigenous people of the province and rightful users of its resources.

While the CPA had mandated a referendum to decide whether the province would be part of the North or the South, the Southern leadership of the province have refused to allow the Messiriya the right to vote. When the South Sudanese administrator violated the CPA by bringing in 2500 troops and nine tanks from the South, the NCP was forced to intervene. The occupation, however, had been ordered only as an interim solution. An agreement had recently been reached on the 20th of May to make a new administration for the province, but the SPLM/A had obstructed the process by insisting that all representatives be from Dinka and Ngok tribes. The situation is now in a stalemate.

Turning to South Kordofan, the Ambassador explained that an implicit threat had been made by the SPLM/A during the recent election, when the slogan ‘It is the star [the SPLM/A] or the attack’ was used. The SPLM/A had also told their followers that they could only lose an election as a result of electoral fraud . When the SPLM lost the election, their militias attacked 60 police stations and killed civilians. The actions of the NCP forces were directed at these forces, in response to this action.

HE Norbert Braakhuis observed that both speakers had demonstrated how intertwined the issues are and thus the need for holistic approaches if the problems in Abyei and South Kordofan are to be resolved . He highlighted the core, outstanding issues:

  • Disputes in the territories of Darfur and Blue Nile, as well as the influence of neighbouring states who have different relations with the two countries, which could have implications for regional security or international security. Conflict had been heaviest in the border areas precisely because most of the unresolved CPA issues relate to these areas
  • Vital popular consultations on issues of identity, self –government, diversity and the role of Sharia law in South Kordofan and Blue Nile have been postponed indefinitely since the signing of the CPA.
  • The issue of oil is still unsolved and has grown more acrimonious over the past few weeks
  • Serious human rights concerns have arisen as a result of these disputes.

The Ambassador emphasised that the issues that brought people to conflict in these areas have remained unresolved. The question remains as to whether they can be addressed in the North without painful political concessions.

The insistence by both sides that security issues must be resolved before underlying grievances are addressed has led to a cycle of conflict. However, both parties have come to recognise that insecurity and underlying grievances must be resolved in tandem.

Turning to the issue of state viability, the Ambassador

  • criticised the heavy burden that both state armies placed on their respective state budgets. Resolution of the conflict in contested areas was a pre-condition for reallocating these resources towards development needs.
  • underscored the large role that oil revenues play in both the economy of South Sudan and North Sudan and the need to manage them responsibly. The North is in a particularly fragile economic state, with the World Bank predicting that the onset of an economic crisis within the next three months.
  • stated that civil society needs to be fostered in the South as the government moves more towards monopolising politics and establishing a ‘one party state’.

Regarding the tension in Abyei and ongoing conflict in South Kordofan, Ambassador Braakhuis emphasised the need for both parties to return to negotiations. He noted that in South Kordofan the northern forces had expected a quickly secured victory but that the opposite situation had occurred and they had lost ground. This has emboldened the SPLM/A, which further threatens stability though he maintained that outstanding problems in South Kordofan could be handled without recourse to warfare.

In Abyei, the last agreement had secured peace in the present but could only postpone the negotiation of a lasting settlement that would adequately address underlying causes of the conflict. Resolving the issue of the nomads’ residency rights had reached a stalemate, and may be impossible for the states to settle themselves. Both should consider letting the issue be negotiated by an impartial and external body.

The Ambassador ended by cautioning both parties to  avoid allowing the situation to develop into one in which the border zone would resemble a divided East and West Germany, as the economies of the two country diverge.


Wendy Fenton thanked the speakers and opened the floor to questions, calling for more input from humanitarians.

One member of the audience asked Amb Alazreg to account for President Bashir’s statement that the election in South Kordofan would either be won ‘through the ballot box or the bullet box’.

Many participants emphasised the importance of keeping the needs of the people in South and North Sudan at the forefront of concerns; and for the international community to condemn human rights abuses that had been committed in South Kordofan and the rest of the country.

One stated that he was in possession of photographic evidence of atrocities in South Kordofan caused by the relentless aerial bombardment of civilians which was also preventing humanitarian access to displaced populations. Atrocities committed outside the UNMIS compound, and the forced withdrawal of the UNMIS forces, were also raised. A respondent from the House of Lords asked what progress had had been made in finding the South Sudanese who had been the victims of slave raids.

In response, Ambassador Alazreg:

  • insisted that President Bashir had not threatened violence if his party lost the South Kordofan election.
  • denied that the North had prevented humanitarian access there. He claimed the Northern government was providing humanitarian relief and had helped villagers to return.
  • claimed that it was the rebels in South Kordofan who had been aerially bombarded, not civilians.

Dr Deng:

  • emphasised the need to raise human rights issues with the Khartoum regime. The UN Security Council should be urged to  create a no-fly zone, ensure access for international organisations, and support a safe haven for the displaced, and support indigenous NGOs.
  • argued that the closure of the border by the North hurt its own people, two or three million of whom needed to be able to move with their animals. Khartoum’s rejection of dual citizenship was based on a medieval idea of having cleansed the North of Africans.
  • also accused the Khartoum government of waging economic warfare against South Sudan by unilaterally issuing a new currency immediately after secession and obstructing  oil movement. The Government of the Republic of South Sudan (RoSS)was further concerned about the potential of the dire economic situation in the North to become a liability for South Sudan.  The RoSS  had offered assistance, but had been turned down.
  • confirmed that the issue of the victims of slave raids is still current and needed to be addressed.
  • concluded by saying he believed the Messiriya had been used by Khartoum and that the South wanted to ensure they had free access to water and pasture in South Sudan.

The following comments and questions then came from the floor:

  • A participant who had been in Kordofan during the bombing and one who had observed conditions on the ground challenged ambassador Alazreg’s denial that 70 000 people had been displaced by the conflict in South Kordofan, had fled to the caves in the Nuba mountains to escape the bombs, and had no access to humanitarian assistance. The speaker said that food and supplies were being sent to militias and the military instead.
  • Another participant asked Amb Alazreg if the North, through its action in South Kordofan, was trying to implement the vision espoused by President Bashir of a racially pure, Arab Islamic state.

Ambassador Braakhuis responded by agreeing that almost the entire population of Kadguli had fled. WFP and UNICEF counted tens of thousands of people on the move who cannot be reached. Diplomatic efforts were under way to secure access but both parties had reservations about granting access. A UN report is being drawn up about what happened in South Kordofan but is still under embargo. The report would probably call for an International Commission of Inquiry.

Ambassador Alazreg claimed that the SPLM/A was sponsoring the rebels in South Kordofan and that the border had been closed in order to prevent them being supplied with arms. He raised concerns that 15 000 Arab families had been expelled from the South.  He denied that the North had tried to purify its state for Arab Muslims.

Wendy Fenton read a comment from an online respondent which asked if the North’s expulsion of NGOs in 2009 was to remove eyes and ears on the ground in preparation for the recent conflict.  There was no time, however, for panellists to respond.

Dr Deng concluded by reiterating that:

o   the future of the three states is a matter of real concern for both the Sudanese people and the international community.

o   the atrocities that have been committed must be denounced, and one day the leaders responsible would have to appear in front of the International Criminal Court.

o   indigenous NGOs need support and are important in order to secure access to conflict affected people.

o   peaceful solutions lie in good diplomatic relations between the two states, and he believes that in the future they will both be viable entities, able to work together.


The arrival of the Ethiopian peacekeeping force in Sudan has again focused attention on the disputed region of Abyei.  The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the South ended decades of civil war. But the CPA Interim Period came to an end when the Republic of South Sudan became the world's newest nation on July 9th, leaving some of the most difficult problems unresolved.  Decisions on the Three Areas - the border areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile State - were deferred leaving critical matters of citizenship and security unresolved.  This event brings together Dr Luka Biong Deng and His Excellency, Abdullahi Alazreg to discuss their different perspectives on the issues relating to the disputed areas, with His Excellency, Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis, reflecting and commenting on key issues raised.

Dr Luka Biong Deng
was the Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the Government of National Unity in Sudan before resigning in May 2011 over the issue of Abyei. He also played a key political and diplomatic role in the negotiation of the CPA provisions related to the disputed areas.

HE Abdullahi Alzareg is the Sudanese Ambassador to the UK. He joined the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990 and has served in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, the US, Switzerland and China.

HE Norbert Braakhuis has been the Netherlands' Ambassador to Sudan since 2009, when he also assumed the role of the Three Areas Working Group of the Assessment and Evaluations Commission. Since 1981, when he joined the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Braakhuis has also served in Senegal, Kenya and Cameroun as well a wide range of senior diplomatic roles within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands.