Compromising with Khartoum: Abyei and the Perils of Accommodation

By Eric Reeves

November 26, 2010 (SSNA) — The carefully planned military coup that brought the National Islamic Front to power in June of 1989 was timed to forestall the most promising chance for a north/south peace agreement since Sudan’s independence in 1956. The two major northern sectarian parties—the Umma Party and Democratic Unionist Party—were on the verge of agreeing to terms with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, an agreement that would have ended the terrible bloodshed that had begun with the resumption of civil war in 1983. Then-president Sadiq al-Mahdi was prepared to accept the arduously negotiated terms of a settlement.

It would take a very long time for international actors in the West and elsewhere to recognize that the National Islamic Front (now expediently and innocuously renamed the National Congress Party) was very different from the northern Arab regimes that had preceded—none of them benign, including Sadiq’s, in their treatment of southerners. In particular, the world failed to see just how dangerous were the consequences of the regime’s radical agenda for Islamizing and Arabizing all of Sudan. Even the jihad declared against the African peoples of the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan (1992), with explicit genocidal ambitions, prompted no broad understanding of what the regime was capable of, or how it regarded the international community. After seeing the world’s obtuse response to its barbarous, seven-year embargo on all humanitarian aid to the Nuba, as well as its attendant military destruction and displacement of Nuban civilians, the regime was emboldened. In 1998 the regime intensified its scorched-earth campaign against civilians in the oil regions that straddle the north/south border. Hundreds of thousands of Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, and members of other African tribal groups were killed or displaced from their lands over the next five years. Khartoum’s ambition was to create a vast military cordon sanitaire around the oil fields and infrastructure, and it largely succeeded.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that finally ended the civil war was signed in January 2005; but it is important to recall that all its substantive protocols had been agreed to by Khartoum and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement as of May 2004. Khartoum delayed the formal signing for eight months in a futile but immensely destructive effort to complete its genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur. The countries involved in negotiating the peace agreement—including the United States, Britain, Norway and various nations of an East African consortium known as IGAD, led by Kenya—were so eager to complete the agreement that Darfur was largely ignored during a period of extreme violence and large-scale ethnically-targeted civilian destruction. The human catastrophe in Darfur was at its worst during these crucial months.

The point of this thumbnail sketch of Sudanese history over the past twenty-one years is to highlight the extraordinary survival skills that have been honed by the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime. Despite a domestic security policy of serial genocide and ongoing crimes against humanity, the regime has never felt seriously threatened by domestic political opposition or international actions. This is because these brutal men are intelligent, canny, and in a number of cases highly educated; they are also utterly ruthless and have been insidiously effective in securing control of the Sudanese economy—the banking system, the agricultural sector, oil revenues—and of course the army and security services.

Although led by Field Marshal Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of the Republic of Sudan, he rules only as the most powerful man within a substantial security cabal. Portfolios regularly change hands; there are political ups and downs (and even expulsions, as was the case with chief Islamic ideologue Hassan al-Turabi); different internal calculations are made about the diplomatic actions necessary to preserve the regime’s monopoly on national power and wealth. But the cast is largely unchanged since 1989. Those figures who exert most power today are all veterans of the coup or early followers of the Islamist regime. Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Salah Abdullah Gosh, Mustafa Osman Ismail, Gutbi el-Mahdi, Ghazi Salah el-Din el-Atabani, Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, General Bakri Hassan Saleh. Many of these names appear on a confidential 2006 Annex prepared by the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur, implicating them in atrocity crimes during the counter-insurgency effort in the region. Other names should have appeared, certainly if we take the research of Human Rights Watch seriously.

HOW, THEN to speak to such a regime? What are the terms of appropriate engagement? Humanitarians, diplomats, international political powers—including the UN—have offered different answers. But in the run-up to the deeply imperiled January self-determination referenda for southern Sudan and the border region of Abyei, it is clear that disingenuousness, silence, and equivocation are the preferred terms of engagement. Reaching conclusions that are belied by everything we have seen for the past twenty-one years, various interlocutors engaging with the regime have displayed a willingness to accommodate the most savage tyranny and abuse in an effort to secure “agreement” on what is perceived as the most exigent crisis of the moment.

This engagement is with men who have never abided by any agreement with another Sudanese party—not one, not ever. Far from responding to international accommodation in a positive fashion, the regime sees such accommodation as a sign of weakness and the occasion for demanding yet more. This response has been replicated over and over again, in all spheres of engagement. But nowhere is such accommodation more dangerous than in the present crisis in Abyei. By failing to hold Khartoum to its clear obligations under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, by allowing the regime to play games with the Abyei ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and by letting the regime dictate the terms of negotiations, the Obama administration—which in the diplomatic division of labor has taken the lead on Abyei—has allowed the issue to bring Sudan to the brink of unfathomably destructive renewed civil war.


It has become clear to all that the Abyei self-determination referendum is so belated that only a political agreement between Khartoum and the Government of South Sudan can diffuse the growing crisis in the region; such a crisis left unresolved will likely lead to war. Khartoum has refused to allow the Abyei Referendum Commission to be established, which in turn prevents any forward movement on the issues of residency, voter registration, border demarcation (as opposed to delineation), wealth sharing, citizenship, and security.

With less than seven weeks until the January 9, 2011 date for both referenda, the Obama administration has finally begun to register appropriate concern about Abyei, indeed one might say a highly belated alarm. But the form of that alarm is dismayingly counterproductive, particularly in its insistence that the south must pay the price for Khartoum’s intransigence. U.S. special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force General Scott Gation, declared in October—just days before an aborted meeting in Addis Ababa scheduled to discuss Abyei—that

“There’s no more time to waste… The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise. The entire world is watching and will make judgments based on how the parties approach these talks, on how they act in the next couple of months.”

And then, very recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei.”

“Compromises”? The compromises were already embodied in the Abyei Protocol of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which guaranteed both that Abyei would have a self-determination referendum on January 9, 2011, and that the delineation of Abyei itself would be undertaken by an international panel of experts, the Abyei Boundary Commission. In a scrupulously well-researched report, the Commission carefully delineated Abyei on the basis of all extant historical records and maps, forwarding their findings to President al-Bashir in July 2005. But al-Bashir and his regime were unhappy with the outcome, and so refused to accept these findings—and refused also to allow for the formation of an Abyei administrative body or preparation for the referendum.

The southern leadership protested against this flagrant violation of the CPA, but with little international support and to no avail. Foreseeing the consequences of continued stalemate, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) agreed to allow a final decision on the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) to be made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. A decision was rendered by the Court in July 2009, finding that the ABC had exceeded its mandate; the Court then redrew the boundaries of Abyei in a way highly favorable to Khartoum, including moving to northern Sudan areas in the east and north within Abyei that have very significant oil reserves. The historical reasoning and expertise of the Court were not nearly as compelling as that of the ABC, but despite this the SPLM accepted the decision as the only way to move forward on the Abyei referendum.

A year later, in the July 2010, a senior Khartoum official, former director of national security Salah Abdullah Gosh, suggested that the Abyei issue had still not been settled: “The [PCA ruling] ruling did not resolve the dispute.” Although he would later retract this assertion, he had tipped Khartoum’s hand: over the past four months the regime has reneged on terms of both the Abyei Protocol and the PCA ruling. The regime is now obstructing the referendum primarily by insisting that migratory Misseriya Arabs from northern Sudan are “residents” of Abyei who must be allowed to vote in the referendum. It has moved some 70,000 to 80,000 Misseriya into the region, people who have traditionally migrated to Abyei for only several months of the year. But now Khartoum insists that they are “residents” and that they be registered to vote in the referendum. Since the Abyei referendum is to determine whether the region joins with the north or the south, these northern Arab votes may well tip the balance. For without them—if only the traditional residents of the region, the Ngok Dinka, were to vote—the results would be overwhelmingly for union with the south.

There is, in fact, no mention of Misseriya Arabs as residents of Abyei in the Abyei Protocol of the CPA, nor was it the focus of side discussions during negotiations. The language of the CPA is spare and clear: “The residents of the Abyei Area shall be: The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area.” Nor was there any discussion of the Misseriya by Khartoum in the months leading up to the PCA decision of July 2009. Only now—having run out of other stratagems—has Khartoum decided to make Misseriya “residency” an issue.

And still the Obama administration—trapped by its own belatedness and incompetence—urges the SPLM to “compromise” yet further. But even in the face of such transparently obstructionist behavior by Khartoum, the southern leadership has in fact continued to “compromise.” I am told by an extremely reliable source in the region that:

“…the SPLM has bent over backwards to compromise. They’ve offered that anybody who can trace residency [in Abyei] to pre-1905 can vote; rejected by the NCP. Then anyone tracing residency to 1956; rejected. Then anyone who was resident in 2005; rejected. Then residency at the time of the PCA ruling; rejected. Finally, anyone resident just one year ago when the Abyei Referendum Act was passed; rejected. The NCP are insisting that the 70-80,000 Missiriya who moved in just recently must vote.” (email received November 20, 2010)

Why does Khartoum feel emboldened to reject all offers of compromise? For the same reason it has prevented formation of the Abyei Referendum Commission; for the same reason that it feels it can block a proposed buffer zone between northern and southern military forces, including those near Abyei; for the same reason that it obstructs movement of the UN peacekeeping mission north of Abyei town; for the same reasons that Khartoum’s infamous 31st Brigade was able to burn Abyei town to the ground in May 2008, killing dozens and displacing as many as 90,000 people—all while the UN watched helplessly from a distance; for the same reason that Khartoum’s military forces and proxies are beating, arresting, and “taxing” southerners attempting to return to their home in Abyei; for the same reason that the regime allows a senior member to declare very recently that Abyei has always been historically part of the north:

“Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, secretary for political affairs of the National Congress Party, said his party has documentary evidence that proves that the oil-rich but disputed Abyei region is part of the north.”

Why does Khartoum feel that it can continue to negotiate the boundaries of Abyei in such preposterous fashion (we have heretofore unconsidered documentary evidence!), despite the findings of both the Abyei Boundary Commission and the Permanent Court of Arbitration? Because the international community has repeatedly proved itself willing to deal expediently and disingenuously with a regime that has an unbroken diplomatic record of deceit, arrogance, and reneging. It still enjoys enormous success making the same threat it has long made: Push us too hard on this or that issue, and we will collapse the entire CPA.

This was disgracefully true for Darfur in 2004. It remains just as disgracefully true in Darfur six years later, as UN humanitarian leaders remain silent about conditions in Darfur, acquiesce in the suppression of critical malnutrition data, and allow press releases to be vetted by Khartoum. The UN peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) is continually denied access to sites where Khartoum has bombed civilian targets (even as all military flights are banned by UN Security Council Resolution 1591), and faces relentless harassment and obstruction by various elements of the regime. Khartoum’s warplanes, including those designed for air-to-ground attacks, sit openly on tarmacs, even during a recent UN Security Council mission to the region. Arms and ammunition, especially from China, continue to pour into Darfur—also in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1591—as reported yet again by the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur. Indeed, Khartoum is not in compliance with a single UN Security Council resolution, and there have been dozens. Nor has it made good on any of its promises in the failed Darfur Peace Agreement (May 2006).

And the Obama administration response to all this? It has recently “decoupled” Darfur from the criteria that will be used to determine whether Khartoum will be removed from the U.S. State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. What is arguably the biggest prize the United States has to offer the regime will no longer be used as leverage to end the holocaust in Darfur, but exclusively to secure compliance with the already negotiated terms of the CPA. This occurs at a time when the regime has begun a massive new military campaign in Darfur—Operation "Misk al-Khitam," or “the perfect ending.” And we may be sure that the implications of a U.S. “decoupling” of Darfur are not lost on a regime that is always assessing its diplomatic adversaries—their strengths, weaknesses, and degree of commitment.

This “decoupling” decision is the price of belatedness and the very essence of expediency—and it will serve to extend the life of the Khartoum regime. Whether it will produce a successful referendum for southern Sudan is an open question: Khartoum’s survivalists are busy now assessing the consequences of aborting or refusing to recognize the vote, militarily preempting the results, as well as considering just how to use Abyei as a means of extracting yet more concessions from the SPLM leadership and Washington. The United States and the rest of the international community—by signaling just how accommodating they can be—have encouraged the most ruthless calculations by Khartoum, and these external actors are now hostage to their own expediency. The clouds darkening over Sudan will not lift soon.

Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.

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