Abyei in Flames: Prospects for Peace Endangered by Diplomatic Incompetence

U.S. diplomatic policy under special envoy Scott Gration bears major responsibility for the failure of the Abyei self-determination referendum, and for the present dangerous political and military standoff; resumed fighting in Abyei could lead to resumption of widespread violence throughout Sudan and a complete collapse of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement

By Eric Reeves

March 8, 2011 (SSNA) — Over the past week violence in the critical Abyei region of Sudan has exploded and as of this writing remains out of control. Large-scale civilian destruction has been confirmed, and the armed forces of Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) are positioned dangerously close to one another. A single spark of further violence may ignite a conflagration of incalculable proportions. The feckless UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is paralyzed, failing to protect civilians or even to offer timely warning of impending attacks; many civilians have been killed and tens of thousands of the African Ngok Dinka have fled southward; several villages and more than three hundred dwellings have been burned to the ground by forces that appear to contain not only elements of the Misseriya Arabs from the region, but Khartoum-backed Popular Defense Forces and even regular members of Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Military deployments by both the Northern SAF and the Southern SPLA have made the situation into a powder keg that could bring about widespread renewal of fighting at any time.

Detailed information is often fragmentary, even contradictory. But Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other humanitarian organizations report that “tens of thousands” of Ngok Dinka civilians (primarily women and children) have fled southward from Abyei town in the wake of widespread killings and the destruction of Ngok villages (the UN estimates that approximately 40,000 people have returned to the Abyei area from the North since late November 2010; many have not yet been settled). Serious fighting has been confirmed in Todach on February 27 – 28, in which many were killed (Todach is approximately 15 kilometers north of Abyei town). Maker Abior was also attacked, and at least 33 Southern police (“Juba Police”) were killed on March 2. There has been fighting in Noong as well. Altogether, more than 100 civilians and police have been killed. Satellite imagery confirms the complete destruction of Todach (February 28/March 1), Maker Abior (March 3) to the northwest of Abyei down, and most recently the larger village of Tagelei to the northeast (March 5)—all burned to the ground. (For a scalable and highly detailed map of Abyei, see http://avidpdf.com/ebook/agany-pdf.html .)

The destruction appears to have been wrought by heavily armed Misseriya Arab militia, but there are compelling reports from the SPLM and Abyei administrators that large numbers of regular soldiers have been involved in the assaults, and that weapons used in several attacks are not in the arsenal of the Misseriya; some of these weapons, according to the SPLM, require specialized training. Two helicopters reportedly evacuated wounded SAF and Popular Defense Forces (PDF) soldiers (UNMIS observers spotted an SAF helicopter in nearby Muglad, South Kordofan, at the time of the attacks). Several dead soldiers were identified as SAF after the attacks, including troops from the infamous 31st Brigade, which was responsible for the May 2008 destruction of Abyei town. For its part, the PDF is a paramilitary force loyal to Khartoum and responsible for many of the civil war atrocities in South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Darfur (Pax Christi recently released an important report documenting Khartoum’s ominous movement of large numbers of troops and weapons into the Nuba). But the Misseriya themselves have also been heavily armed by Khartoum, a development reported in detail by the authoritative Swiss-based Small Arms Survey.

If reports of heavy weapons and fighting by the PDF and SAF are confirmed, they would signal Khartoum’s unambiguous determination to seize all of Abyei as far south as Abyei town. The ambition is then to negotiate Abyei’s final status on the basis of a military fait accompli. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) will not accept such actions, diplomatically or militarily.

The situation is fluid, the fog of war has already descended on Abyei, but there is a fundamental character to the political, diplomatic, and military equities defining pronouncements from Khartoum and the Southern capital of Juba. Reports from the two sides are radically, and predictably, at odds with one another, agreeing in neither detail, outline, nor emphasis. But here it is important to remember that Khartoum has a long and substantial history of distortion, prevarication, and mendacity—and of this there is a great deal of evidence. To take just one recent example, the regime denied that it had bombed civilian and military targets in South Sudan in early December 2010, a month before the self-determination referendum of January 9—but the bombings were in fact later confirmed by UN investigators and journalists. The SPLM has at times stretched the facts to fit its own account of events, but there is nothing comparable to the kind of mendacity Khartoum displayed, entirely in character, at the time of the bombings.

The key question we must continue to ask in assessing reports from Abyei is cui bono? Who benefits from the present turmoil and threat of conflict—Khartoum or Juba? To ask the question is to answer it: Khartoum, as Abyei administrator Deng Arop Kuol has insisted, is seeking military control of a large part of Abyei in order to strengthen its negotiating position in any final settlement of the region’s status. For its part, Juba wants nothing so much as a peaceful and just resolution of the Abyei crisis. It has indicated a willingness to be flexible on a number of outstanding North/South issues; it has in fact compromised on the disputed issue of residency for Misseriya Arab tribal groups in voting. The definition of “residency” is the immediate diplomatic challenge;, and addressing this challenge on the basis of previous agreements is the only way to move forward with implementation of the Abyei Protocol (2004) that was critical in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005).

But further negotiations first require a credible and well-monitored cease-fire, then a separation and withdrawal of forces, followed by a much more aggressive UN patrolling of the Abyei region, as well as adjoining parts of South Darfur, South Kordofan, Unity State, Warrap, and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal (Khartoum must thus drop its opposition to deployment of another 2,000 peacekeepers, requested by the head of UN peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy). Only then can the urgent diplomatic engagement needed be productive. And if a just resolution to the Abyei crisis is to be achieved, it must be in terms the distinguished historian of Sudan Douglas Johnson has wisely specified in referring back to the Machakos Protocol of 2002, which declared that “…the Parties are desirous of resolving the Sudan conflict in a just and sustainable manner by addressing the root causes of the conflict and by establishing a framework for governance through which power and wealth shall be equitably shared and human rights guaranteed….”

In understanding these “root causes” it is important to remember that Abyei was denied the self-determination referendum guaranteed by the Addis Ababa peace agreement (1972) that ended the first civil war (1955-72). The Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement also guaranteed a self-determination referendum for Abyei, but on January 9, 2011 the region was again denied. The implications are apparently lost on U.S. special envoy Scott Gration, who has pushed Juba and the Ngok people of Abyei to ignore what has been negotiated, including provision for the self-determination referendum. But in attempting to force the Southern leadership, in effect, to renegotiate the Abyei Protocol, Gration has made a fundamental error, one that may doom the chances of peace for Sudan. As Johnson argues, it is essential—if resolution of the Abyei crisis is to be achieved—that there be,

“A recognition by the U.S. government that the recent [diplomatic] interventions of their mediators have made a resolution less, rather than more likely, and a reversal of their current attempt to mediate through the imposition of a further territorial compromise.” (Douglas Johnson, “The Road Back from Abyei: Any resolution of the Abyei dispute must address the root causes,” January 14, 2011)


The evidence of the last week makes clear that war could resume at any time in Abyei, putting an end to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) and plunging the people of South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains back into unfathomably destructive conflict; other marginalized regions, including Southern Blue Nile and minorities in Red Sea and Kassala states, may well join Southern forces. All this could have been avoided with intelligent and comprehending diplomacy, especially by the United States and envoy Gration. But Gration is notoriously stubborn and disinclined to listen to others, even those with a great deal more experience in Sudan. Much has been foretold, including the perils of indulging a “moral equivalence” between the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum on the one hand and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of South Sudan in Juba on the other. Gration chose not to hear.

Most consequentially, Gration’s words and actions—in particular his demand that the South must “compromise” further on Abyei—have persuaded the NIF/NCP regime that they might extract yet more from Juba and the international community in any final resolution of Abyei’s status. He has in effect re-opened negotiations on the Abyei Protocol (2004) that was incorporated into the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. He has done so despite the terms of the Abyei Protocol itself, as well as a July 2009 “final and binding” decision on Abyei by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague). In his January 14, 2011 overview, Sudan scholar Johnson puts the matter with overwhelming cogency and historical authority (Johnson was a distinguished member of the Abyei Boundaries Commission, tasked by the Abyei Protocol with determining Abyei’s boundaries). Johnson is particularly forceful in his characterization of U.S. insistence—by both Gration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—that the South must “compromise” more than it has in the Darfur Protocol and in accepting the “final and binding” decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration:

“First, the U.S. has abandoned any pretence of addressing the root causes of the [Abyei] dispute and in effect are validating the land grab of the northern [Misseriya Arab] settlements and dispossession of the Ngok [Dinka] during the war [1983 2005].

“Second, by proposing a further compromise of a compromise (the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling) of a compromise (the Abyei Boundaries Commission report), the U.S. is undermining the role of international mediation and arbitration. “Third, the U.S. is overlooking certain aspects of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling which could be used as the basis for building an agreement that would reassure the Misseriya that their traditional grazing rights can be guaranteed; thus removing the stated reason for their objection to the Abyei referendum.” This compressed indictment is accurate on every count, and suggests just how misguided Gration’s emphasis on “compromise” has been:

“There’s no more time to waste… The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise [over Abyei]. 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.” (Reuters [dateline: Washington, DC], October 22, 2010)

“[The two parties must] demonstrate the political will, the political courage, and the political leadership to make some concessions.” (U.S. State Department, January 4, 2011)

Secretary Clinton subsequently insisted that, “Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei.”

But compromises by the SPLM were already embodied in the Abyei Protocol of the 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 Boundaries Commission. Regime President al-Bashir was unhappy with the report (submitted in July 2005), and so refused to accept it—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 SPLM compromised again, agreeing to allow a final decision on the findings of the Abyei Boundaries Commission 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 Abyei Boundaries Commission 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 Abyei Boundaries Commission, but despite this the SPLM accepted the decision as the only way to move forward on the Abyei referendum.

This was a compromise, and a painful one at that. And the SPLM has offered yet further compromise solutions for Abyei, beyond accepting the binding arbitration of the PCA. In sharp contrast, for an “uncompromising” attitude we need only look at the statement this past July by Presidential advisor and former director of national security Salah Abdullah Gosh. Gosh claimed 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 nine months the regime has steadfastly reneged on terms of both the Abyei Protocol and the PCA ruling. More recently Gosh has again denied the legitimacy of the PCA ruling, declaring to the regime-run “Sudan Media Center” (SMC):

“Advisor of the President, General Salah Abdullah Gosh, said that Abyei belongs to the north and it will belong to the north as it is located northwards of 1956 borders…. [Gosh] pointed out that the SPLM insists in rejecting all submitted proposals, [thereby] affirming that the National Congress Party has no other resolution but stressing the fact the Abyei belongs to the north.” (February 22, 2011)

Just as tendentiously, Ibrahim Ghandour, secretary for political affairs of the NIF/NCP regime, has declared that “his party has documentary evidence that proves that the oil-rich but disputed Abyei region is part of the north.” This, like Gosh’s peremptory declaration, is a preposterous assertion, implying that the “documentary evidence” referred to here was not previously provided to either the Abyei Boundaries Commission or the Permanent Court of Arbitration; but if the “documentary evidence” “proved” what Ghandour claims, we may be sure that it would not only now be coming to light (and of course there has been no release of this “evidence”). Both Gosh and Ghandour offer pure mendacity, but with a transparent political purpose.

And yet despite this provocative and disruptive mendacity—or perhaps because of it—the Obama administration still insists on more compromising by the SPLM. Gration declared in December that the Abyei crisis “is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. What we’re looking for is a solution that makes both sides angry but neither side mad” (Reuters [dateline: Washington, DC], December 13, 2010). The import is clear: the SPLM must sacrifice yet more, there must be “equivalence” in the sacrifice, even as this demand ignores what the SPLM has already sacrificed on the issue.

The SPLM perspective is rather different. Johnson quotes SPLM leader Deng Alor, who is from Abyei and served as a resource for Johnson during the research and work of the Abyei Boundaries Commission:

[1] On the decision by the U.S. to ignore the finding of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (here he is very close in his thinking to Johnson), Alor is explicit:

“We have been telling the mediators, the facilitators, the special envoy of President Obama [Scott Gration], the former president of South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki and his panel [from the African Union]—we have been trying to convince them that there is no way we can come up with a new model, after the one which was defined by The Hague. This is going to be a very bad precedent for the international community, that international courts could come up with decisions and rulings, and they are not implemented. That is going to be bad, a bad precedent. There will be no need for anyone to call for international arbitration, if you go [for arbitration] and decisions are not respected.”

Characteristically, Gration has ignored this unassailable perspective on the importance of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Deng Alor also reports on Gration’s proposal to divide Abyei:

[2] “…Gration came last month [October 2010], I think in his attempt to arrive at any solution—not necessarily a just solution [to Abyei]. We were in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. That was the first time the issue of the division of the [Abyei] area into two came up.”

Though the State Department denies that Gration made any proposal on Abyei, this account has been confirmed by too many sources not to be true. And what it represents is precisely Gration’s version of “compromise”: alter the judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on Abyei’s boundaries. Deng Alor goes on to note that,

“…when this issue [i.e., the idea of dividing Abyei] was brought up [by the Northern government], Gration immediately supported it. And this made the National Congress more difficult. They have become intransigent, because now they feel they have support from the United States.”

Not content to push this expedient foolishness himself, “[Gration] even tried to mobilize people for this, from the State Department and from the (Obama) administration. Senator [John] Kerry came, and he tried to convince us to accept the division of the area.”

And indeed, Kerry revealed a breathtaking ignorance of the significance of Abyei for the South and the Ngok Dinka people of the region:

“U.S. Senator John Kerry on Sunday urged northern and southern leaders to reach a compromise on Abyei, telling journalists during a visit to Khartoum ‘a few hundred square miles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress when the fate of millions of people is at stake.’” (Reuters [dateline: Addis Ababa], October 25, 2010)

[3] With shameful disingenuousness, Gration and Kerry—having failed to convince the SPLM to abandon principle and the people it represents—attempted to walk back the whole idea. Indeed, the State Department and Obama administration officials went out of their way to deny that the U.S. had ever had any position or proposal for Abyei:

“[SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL] So a couple things. One, it is completely inaccurate to suggest that there is an American proposal either in this set of documents that the chairman [Thabo Mbeki, Chair of the African Union High-level Panel on Implementation] carried or otherwise on Abyei. The parties themselves are working that issue very aggressively in the context of and under the good auspices of former President Mbeki. And it’s entirely within their hands to make those decisions since they are the parties to the CPA.” (State Department briefing, November 8, 2010)

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley continued the disingenuous charade, reducing Gration’s highly consequential proposals and support for division of Abyei to diplomatic chit-chat:

“…just to go back and make the point that you started with on Abyei, that the—it’s the parties that are negotiating have to resolve the requirements to move forward on Abyei. On the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, we brought the parties together in New York to have a weekend session to begin the conversation on Abyei. That continued in October in Addis.”

In short, Gration first makes a disastrous proposal and a decision to support Khartoum, and then disingenuously tries to deny it through administration officials and the State Department spokesman. This is tawdry, dishonest, and finally cowardly diplomatic behavior. And after compromising his diplomatic position vis-à-vis the SPLM, Gration was obliged to hand off Abyei to Thabo Mbeki, Chair of the African Union High-level Panel on Implementation—who has proved just as accommodating of Khartoum as Gration, and is deeply mistrusted by the people of the South, of Abyei, and of Darfur. The authoritative Africa Confidential offers a telling vignette:

“[Mbeki] has been pushing for [a soft] North-South border which, seven weeks before the referenda, remains un-demarcated. Mbeki talks about easy cross-border access for people and goods in terms of reconciliation and peace. Many Sudanese North and South worry that it would be a gift to the National Congress Party’s veteran strategies of destabilising and ‘Islamising’ the South and beyond. It fuels widespread Sudanese criticism of Mbeki’s handling of both the Darfur and North South issues, widely seen as soft on [Khartoum’s National Congress Party]. One Ngok civil society leader told [Africa Confidential] Mbeki was basically telling the Ngok that the Abyei Protocol and PCA boundaries must all be renegotiated because the Misseriya wouldn’t budge.” (Africa Confidential, November 19, 2010)

The consequences of expediency continue to ripple out from the actions and proposals of Gration and Mbeki, and have brought us to the very verge of war.


No understanding of Abyei is possible without some knowledge of the relation between the Ngok Dinka of the region and the migratory Misseriya Arabs who move into the region during the dry season to bring their cattle to the Kiir/Bahr al-Arab River and southern pasturage. Johnson’s “The Road Back from Abyei” offers precisely the necessary synoptic history.

The Misseriya migration is not inherently violent, and does not necessarily lead to conflict. But Khartoum’s use of Misseriya militia as proxy forces during the second North/South civil war (1983-2005) created permanent tensions that are most conspicuously on display in Abyei now:

“Violence spilling over from Bahr el-Ghazal during the [first] civil war in the 1960s brought the first armed conflict between the Ngok and Misseriya since the 19th century, and it was at this time that the Misseriya began claiming and occupying the northern-most Ngok settlements. The violent displacement of Ngok from their villages by armed Misseriya, sometimes with the backing of members of the local police, was accelerated after the end of the first civil war in the 1970s when the Ngok were offered a referendum on whether they wanted to be incorporated into the newly-established Southern Region, or remain as part of Kordofan. Following the discovery of oil flowing beneath Abyei Khartoum blocked the referendum, in a move that preceded and led to the abrogation of the Addis Ababa Agreement [guaranteeing Abyei the right to a self-determination referendum] in 1983. The Abyei referendum, therefore, is unfinished business.”

It was precisely because Abyei was “unfinished business” that the Abyei Protocol (2004) was so important to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005). Though imperfect, and already a compromise, the Protocol remains the indispensible diplomatic framework for a political settlement of the Abyei crisis. The ready willingness to “compromise” the Protocol may be the single most destructive diplomatic decision that special envoy Gration has made during his two-year tenure. As Johnson notes, the Protocol grows out of the breakthrough Machakos Protocol of July 2002, which committed Khartoum and the SPLM to address the “root causes” of the conflict; the Machakos Protocol also committed Khartoum to guaranteeing a Southern self-determination referendum, which would become referenda (plural) with subsequent negotiation of the Abyei Protocol:

“If the resolution of the Abyei conflict is to be true to the declaration in the Machakos Protocol that it will address the ‘root causes’ of the problem, then it must provide a way to redress the balance between the displaced Ngok population and the seasonal migrant Misseriya population. It must also recognize that one reason why conflict erupted in Abyei before the beginning of the recent civil war was because of the failure of the government of the day to honour its promise to the Ngok of a referendum deciding which administration [North or South] they were to join. It also must address the anxieties of the Misseriya about their future access to pastures and waterways that have become increasingly vital to the survival of their herds. The Abyei Protocol, for all its flaws, makes general provision for all of this.”

And yet, despite the potential of the Abyei Protocol, Gration has abandoned it in principle and in his specific proposals. His demand that the South “compromise” further on the issue undermines, as Johnson notes, the critical role of international mediation and arbitration: “by proposing a further compromise of a compromise (the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling) of a compromise (the Abyei Boundaries Commission report), the U.S. is undermining the role of international mediation and arbitration.” Gration’s misguided diplomacy is disastrous not only for Sudan, but for the precedent he is setting—the point of Deng Alor’s comments on Gration.

The question now confronting diplomacy is whether the migratory Misseriya—who are in Abyei (as defined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration) for only a few months a year—are residents. This would seem almost a contradiction in terms—“resident migrants”—but it is now the position to which Khartoum cleaves (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”). Notably, the Misseriya did not figure in the Abyei Protocol, or side discussions; they were not of concern to Khartoum while the Abyei Boundaries Commission took up its mandate per the Abyei Protocol; and Khartoum did not raise the issue of the Misseriya before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, either during deliberations or following the judgment handed down in July 2009. Only in summer 2010 did Salah Gosh claim that Abyei—despite the Court’s ruling—remained unsettled, and only subsequently did Misseriya voting rights become an issue.

This may well have been strategic postponement by Khartoum: raising the Misseriya residency and voting issues only when the electoral calendar for the self-determination referenda had been run down, and the SPLM and international community were forced to negotiate under severe time constraints. The belatedness in addressing the Abyei referendum, and the larger Southern self-determination referendum, is yet again a function of Gration’s incompetence.

It is this belatedness that compelled Gration’s desperate urging of “compromise” on the SPLM. Moreover, the notion that the SPLM has not compromised in the course of negotiations is false—even on the issue of Misseriya residency—though such a claim is the evident premise of Gration’s diplomacy. As one extremely well-informed observer on the scene reported to me in November, following the unsuccessful negotiations on Abyei that had been held in Addis Ababa (October 3 – 12, 2010):

“…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 Permanent Court of Arbitration 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 Misseriya who moved in just recently must vote.” (email received November 20, 2010)

Observers very close to the talks in Addis have confirmed this understanding of the SPLM’s diplomatic flexibility. What the SPLM refused to accept was Gration’s proposal that residency be based on a conspicuously impossible test:

“According to Sudan Tribune’s sources, the American mediators proposed that the right to vote should be granted to those who lived in Abyei for 200 days during each of the last three years.” (Sudan Tribune [Addis Ababa], October 12, 2010)

Suggesting that residency be certified on such a basis reflects diplomatic myopia or expediency—with Gration one is never sure which prevails.


What has been repeatedly stressed, by the SPLM itself but also by close observers in Addis, is that the Misseriya have been consistently and deliberately misled about the SPLM’s intentions. The expedient position of special envoy Gration has obscured this fact, but it lies behind the current explosive situation in Abyei. For while the SPLM has repeatedly and emphatically assured the Misseriya that their migratory rights will be preserved in the event Abyei eventually votes to join the South, Khartoum attempts to do just the opposite, especially with some of the hard-line Misseriya leaders:

[1] “[Senior Presidential Assistant Nafie Ali] Nafie accused the SPLM of seeking to suppress the rights of the Misseriya while focusing on the Dinka Ngok and stressed that they will not compromise on the rights of the Arab tribe.”

[2] “The Misseriya nomads fear that if they are not counted as residents then Abyei will go to the south and the seasonal access on which their livelihoods depend will be denied. This fear remains strong, despite promises from the Ngok Dinka, and a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, that Misseriya grazing rights will be upheld regardless of the outcome of the referendum. ‘The Misseriya nomads are being misled by the politicians,’ says Ngok Dinka chief, Kuol Deng Kuol. ‘They are being told that even though the Hague ruling says it, they won’t get their (grazing) rights.’” (Christian Science Monitor [dateline: Abyei], November 3, 2010)

[3] "‘This [Abyei] is Misseriya land,’ said Sadig Babo Nimir, a member of the tribe’s ruling family, by phone from Khartoum. ‘The Ngok Dinka are just guests in this place.’” (McClatchy Newspapers [dateline: Nairobi], February 28, 2011)

Though contradicted in their assessments by all reasonable historical accounts, hard-line Misseriya leaders like Sadig Babo Nimir have joined with Khartoum in efforts to stoke Misseriya anger and resentment, which derives from deliberate misrepresentations—in Abyei, in Southern Kordofan (including the major towns of Muglad and Kadugli), in Khartoum, and in negotiating forums such as that held in Addis Ababa in October 2010 (this last has been confirmed by one of the mediators in the talks). Certainly Khartoum relies on the Misseriya in many ways, both militarily and politically. The Small Arms Survey notes in its most recent (March 2011) update on “Militarization in Abyei” how Khartoum has used these Arab tribesmen in the past:

“The Misseriya were one of the first tribes armed by the Khartoum government as proxy militias in the 1983–2005 civil war, including in the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces. (The strategy of combining regular and irregular forces to clear the Dinka Ngok from their homes and from around the oilfields was later replicated in the Nuba Mountains, the oilfields of Southern Sudan and, most recently, in Darfur, and always to devastating effect.)”

This should make clear the implications of the arms transfers to Misseriya and PDF forces in Southern Kordofan, just north of Abyei:

“SPLA officers in neighbouring South Kordofan claim that the NCP is also arming Misseriya in what was Western Kordofan, with the aim of fomenting instability and preventing the Abyei referendum. They say 12.7mm anti-aircraft guns, mortars, light machine guns, and anti-tank weapons have been channelled through a leader of the Awlad Omran section of the Misseriya Humr in Muglad. Confidential military documents made available to the Small Arms Survey make clear that the Khartoum government has, since the CPA, armed the Misseriya Humr. One document dated 1 November 2008 records the dispatch of 600 AK-47 assault weapons, 27 7.62 mm rifles, and six 66 mm and 75 mm mortars to Mohamed Omar al Ansari, the leader of the Abyei Liberation Front.

” The regular Sudan Armed Forces have also increased their presence:

“Independent observers say that the build-up of forces began in May–June [2010], with the 10th Division in Babanusa being expanded and supported with tanks and heavy weapons. In July–August [2010], reinforcements moved towards the North South border, a likely flashpoint for renewed war if southerners vote for independence in their referendum, also scheduled for January 2011. The most heavily armed part of the Abyei area today is reported to be around the Diffra oil field in the extreme north. Senior SPLM officials claim that four battalions have been deployed around Diffra, with battalions in other areas being beefed up and paramilitary training camps opened in three other areas.”

Much of this build-up has been captured by the recent satellite photography of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which has also confirmed the burning of Maker Abior, Tagelei, and Todach.

Africa Confidential reports (November 19, 2010) that “a Misseriya Arab called Faki el Din Abdullah commands the Diffra camp [Diffra is in north-central Abyei]. He officially describes himself as a ‘youth leader,’ but is believed to be heavily armed directly from Khartoum….”


For many years Khartoum has successfully moved the North/South border southward in the Abyei region, and sees present negotiations as one more stage in this process. As Douglas Johnson notes, one of the “root causes” of the Abyei dispute is the progressive annexation of Ngok Dinka territory by the Misseriya, with the support of successive Khartoum regimes, since the 1970s:

“Violence spilling over from Bahr el-Ghazal during the civil war in the 1960s brought the first armed conflict between the Ngok and Misseriya since the 19th century, and it was at this time that the Misseriya began claiming and occupying the northern-most Ngok settlements. The violent displacement of Ngok from their villages by armed Misseriya, sometimes with the backing of members of the local police, was accelerated after the end of the first civil war in the 1970s when the Ngok were offered a referendum on whether they wanted to be incorporated into the newly-established Southern Region, or remain as part of Kordofan.”

This is the context in which to understand SPLM perceptions of Abyei. And particularly given Deng Alor’s account of U.S. negotiating strategy, Johnson’s three conclusions seem inescapable:

“First, the U.S. has abandoned any pretence of addressing the root causes of the dispute and in effect are validating the land grab of the northern settlements and dispossession of the Ngok during the war.

“Second, by proposing a further compromise of a compromise (the PCA ruling) of a compromise (the ABC report), the U.S. is undermining the role of international mediation and arbitration.

“Third, the U.S. is overlooking certain aspects of the PCA ruling which could be used as the basis for building an agreement that would reassure the Misseriya that their traditional grazing rights can be guaranteed; thus removing the stated reason for their objection to the Abyei referendum.” The consequences of these major errors in Gration’s diplomacy can be seen in the current violence in Abyei. As Alan Boswell notes in a well-informed dispatch:

“One theory, voiced by local and international officials close to the situation, suggests the attacks are aimed at capturing part or all of Abyei to strengthen the north’s hand in ongoing negotiations. The north has made no secret of its hope to divide Abyei in two and hang onto the oil-producing region that it already controls.” (Time Magazine [on-line], March 4, 2011)

This is certainly the view of the SPLM leadership in Abyei. Miyen Alor Kuol, part of the regional administration in Abyei, has said of the recent violence and military actions:

"‘This is precisely the work of the government in the north. They are doing it for political pressure on the upcoming talks so that we concede. They sent these groups to attack our people as part of strategies and plans to depopulate the area and to tell the international community that the so called Misseriya are part of Abyei and that they deserve representation in the area during the upcoming talks scheduled to resume in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, next Tuesday. Precisely this is the message they are trying to send.’ said Kuol.” (Sudan Tribune, February 27, 2011)


The currently available evidence—from journalists, regional sources, and Satellite Sentry Project photography—strongly suggests a situation that is moving more deeply into crisis. In January more than fifty civilians were killed in various acts of violence in Abyei, though agreements reached between Ngok and Misseriya leaders on January 13 and 17 in Muglad held some promise of calming the situation. But those agreements have not been implemented, and mutual trust has withered almost completely. Moreover, the “Joint Integrated Units” (JUI) stipulated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and deployed to prevent precisely the violence we are seeing in Abyei, have begun to disintegrate. Never either truly “joint” or “integrated,” tensions between the component elements of the SPLA and SAF have grown intolerable in recent weeks, paralyzing them as protective units (deployments of JIU were very close to the violence in Todach and Tagelei—in Todach only 400 meters away—and yet did not intervene).

Already this month well over 100 civilians and police have been killed in the recent violence, and perhaps many more (there is no credible figure for Misseriya casualties). Abyei town is more than half deserted, with tens of thousands of Ngok civilians streaming southward, many to Agok on the south side of the Kiir/Bahr el-Arab River, where they fled after the 31st Brigade of the Sudan Armed Forces burned Abyei town to the ground in May 2008, killing scores and displacing as many as 90,000 civilians.

There are reliable reports that large military re-deployments have been made by SAF and PDF forces, and corresponding re-deployments by elements of the SPLA. It is impossible to overstate the danger of the present situation or how rapidly violence might spread. The U.S. must urgently signal to Khartoum that Gration’s policy of accommodation and “compromise” is no longer in force. This will entail the forms of recognition that Johnson specifies: “[the U.S. must recognize that] the recent interventions of their mediators have made a resolution of the [Abyei crisis] less, rather than more likely, and a reversal of their current attempt to mediate through the imposition of a further territorial compromise.” In short, the U.S. must make clear it will uphold the terms of the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the “final and binding” July 2009 ruling on Abyei by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Absent such a clear signal, Khartoum will continue to assume that it has more to gain from keeping Abyei in turmoil, and that the threat or reality of violence will serve as a means of extracting more from Juba, the U.S., and the rest of the international community.

If meaningful diplomacy begins again, then Johnson’s observation about the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration should be front and center in all discussions:

“[The] U.S. is overlooking certain aspects of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling which could be used as the basis for building an agreement that would reassure the Misseriya that their traditional grazing rights can be guaranteed; thus removing the stated reason for their objection to the Abyei referendum.”

As complex and difficult as the Abyei crisis appears, there are certain basic truths about the political equities of the disputing parties that may be clearly apprehended. That U.S. special envoy Gration has not been able to understand these truths may soon cost hundreds of thousands of lives throughout Sudan. We stand at the edge of the precipice.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.  He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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