“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: the Future of Abyei

It has now been six and a half years since the people of Abyei should have decided their future.

Abyei, an oil-rich region situated between Sudan and South Sudan, was due to have a self-determination referendum on the 9 January 2011; the day South Sudan decided to become an independent nation. However, disagreements between Sudan and South Sudan regarding voter eligibility has meant that the people of Abyei are still waiting to hold an official vote.

These disagreements centre on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe who spend a portion of the year in Abyei are eligible to vote. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stating that only the Ngok Dinka tribe, and those permanently residing in Abyei for a period of 3 years, may vote, the government of Sudan failed to accept these terms.

As the delay continued, the Ngok Dinka General Conference conducted what was termed a “People’s Referendum”: it was an unofficial vote but 98% of registered Ngok Dinka voters participated, of which 99.9% voted to join South Sudan. Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the African Union and international community, rejected the outcome of the referendum but both Khartoum and Juba have laid claim to Abyei.

Since the Peoples Referendum, South Sudan has descended into chaos, while Bashir’s grip on Sudan appears to be strengthening. With chaos to the South and oppression to the North, the decision may not be as simple as it was a few years ago – Abyei and its people are clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The Rock – Bashir’s Agenda

Al Bashir, one of the only acting heads of state to be indicted by the ICC, is well known for running an authoritarian regime, with human rights continually being abused. Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so. Bashir and his allies have turned Sudan into what feels like an impenetrable rock.

“Al Bashir has no desire to lose Abyei to South Sudan; he made that clear in 2015 when he claimed Abyei was a Sudanese territory and would remain so.”

Being part of South Kordofan would be highly undesirable for the people of Abyei. In a recent film, titled “the Heart of Nuba”, there is damning evidence of the government bombing its own civilians in the Nuba Mountains, a region in South Kordofan. Ngok Dinka links to the SPLA during the civil war would make them targets of the government of Khartoum.

The actions and rhetoric of the Sudanese government suggests that even if the vote resulted in Abyei joining the South, they might not allow it to secede peacefully.

This poses two important questions:

  1. Does South Sudan have the ability to defend Abyei?
  2. Does the international community have the political will to protect Abyei?

With internal violence engulfing the state, it is unlikely that the government of South Sudan will be able to protect Abyei while trying to bring its own situation under control.

With South Sudan not being in a position to protect Abyei, the second question about – whether the international community has the political will to protect Abyei – is significant.

The EU is working with Sudan and surrounding African nations to reduce the number of refugees reaching Europe via Libya. Sudan is central to the policy which casts doubt over the political will to intervening to protect Abyei from the government of Sudan. Opinion in Washington on how to deal with Sudan appears to be changing. President Obama’s decision to partially lift US sanctions on Sudan in January 2017 was a surprise to many and signalled a significant shift in the relationship between Khartoum and Washington. However, President Trump’s executive order banning Sudanese nationals from traveling to the US suggests otherwise. The Trump administration sees Sudan as a threat and an ally in the fight against terrorism, yet “putting America first” cancels out any chance of a military intervention to protect Abyei. Trumps foreign policy focus in the region is countering ISIS and Islamic terrorism, outside of that intervention appears to be out of the question. Putting America first means putting Abyei last.

Therefore, it is likely that the African Union (AU) would have to resolve the situation. This would allow the AU to showcase African solutions for African problems, but could also run into issues of political will amongst member states. It is difficult to fathom circumstances where a positive case would be made for AU intervention in Abyei outside of the current UN peacekeeping mission. Intervention would destabilise the already fragile region. The AU would also lose its role as an independent broker of peace in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile which could usher the return of war between rebel groups and the government.

 The Hard Place – South Sudan’s Civil War

Clearly if the vote had been officially conducted in 2011, with all the hope and optimism surrounding the chance to create a new independent nation, Abyei would be part of South Sudan. Yet the dynamics of the decision have changed.

Three years on from the unofficial “People’s Referendum”, South Sudan is descending into chaos. The UN recently warned of a potential genocide similar to the one experienced by Rwanda. South Sudan’s civil war is being waged along ethnic lines between the Dinka and the Nuer. Violence is orchestrated by President Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer. The Ngok Dinka are the majority in Abyei, a group with connections to the Dinka in South Sudan and therefore a vote to join the South could put them at risk of being embroiled in the ethnic conflict. Both government and rebel fighters have been known to deliberately target civilians based on ethnicity.

South Sudan is experiencing problems in functioning as a state due to the ongoing violence. Famine is a major problem, as well as inflation.

It appears that the fighting in South Sudan is set to continue, unless both sides make an effort to reconcile. For Abyei this is distressing, as joining South Sudan would mean becoming part of another civil war.

 The future  

Much has changed in the six and a half years since Abyei was due to hold its referendum. Despite the violence to the South, it is hard to imagine that a future result would be different to the People’s Referendum of 2013, due to the experience Abyei has had and could potentially have with the north. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to the longest running civil war in Africa and the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set out clearly the terms and participants of a plebiscite in Abyei. The political will to hold an official referendum based on these conditions must be found so that the people of Abyei can exercise their hard-won battle for self-determination.

By Ben Jackson, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant

Featured image: “Family leaves Abyei by truck” by Enough Project is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0