Obama Weak on the Rapidly Escalating Crisis in Abyei (Sudan)

By Eric Reeves

March 9, 2011 (SSNA) — Military tensions continue to escalate in the contested border region of Abyei in Sudan; reports from the ground indicate a large presence of troops from both Khartoum’s regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and a responding force from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). SAF low-bed trailers and tank transport vehicles have been identified, and satellite imagery from the Satellite Sentinel Project confirms a growing presence of heavy military equipment and armor. Some of the SAF elements of the “Joint Integrated Units” (JIUs), comprising both SAF and SPLA troops, are now redeploying in the region. These units, stipulated by a 2005 peace agreement between the North and South, were organized to provide security and a de-escalation of military tensions in key regions, but have been almost completely ineffective. Now SAF units may soon be fighting their southern counterparts.

Further, there are many reports from Abyei administrators and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that regular SAF troops and military equipment have already been involved in recent fighting in Abyei, along with the Popular Defense Forces, a notoriously brutal paramilitary. As Khartoum’s military strategy comes ever more clearly into focus—seize Abyei as far south as possible, then negotiate final status of the region from a position of military strength—so, too, the determination of the SPLA to prevent this becomes clearer. Agreements signed in January between leaders of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei and the migratory Misseriya Arabs have proved wholly worthless. An extremely dangerous confrontation, involving militaries with sophisticated weaponry, is now in place. Widespread fighting could come at any time.

Tens of thousands of Ngok Dinka civilians are already fleeing south, away from the violence. A number of villages have been burned to the ground, including some 300 dwellings in Tagelei, northeast of Abyei town. More than 100 have been killed in the past ten days. (For a scalable and highly detailed map of Abyei, see http://avidpdf.com/ebook/agany-pdf.html ) The humanitarian crisis is rapidly escalating.

If war resumes in Abyei, it is likely to spread quickly to the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile. The entire North/South border could become one long military front, particularly in the oil regions of Unity State and South Kordofan. Unless Khartoum is sent the clearest possible signal that it will gain nothing by such offensive military action, including arming and encouraging Misseriya militias, the fighting in Abyei will increase. The UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIS) is neither willing nor able to intervene—or even report on what lies beyond their bases. At this point, UNMIS patrols are consistently being denied freedom of movement by both the SAF and SPLA. Heavily armed, Khartoum-backed Misseriya units continue marauding throughout much of Abyei.

It is, then, enormously disappointing that President Obama’s White House statement on Abyei today not only fails to assign primary responsibility for the current military crisis in Abyei, but offers mere lip service to the essential agreements that must serve as the basis for a just peace in Abyei:

“We call on Presidents Bashir and Kiir to meet as soon as possible and demonstrate that they are serious about making urgent progress in talks to resolve Abyei’s final status in a manner that addresses the needs of all communities and upholds the Abyei Protocol and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.” (emphasis added) (Statement of the White House Press Secretary, March 9, 2011)

But in fact U.S. policy during the tenure of President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has consistently worked to undermine the authority of both the Abyei Protocol, signed in 2004, and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in July 2009. Rather than uphold these key agreements, Gration has relentlessly urged the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to “compromise” further on Abyei, despite the many compromises the SPLM has already made. Said Gration in October 2010, “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.”

More recently Gration has reiterated this demand that “[the two parties must] demonstrate the political will, the political courage, and the political leadership to make some concessions.” He has been joined in this insistence—which amounts to a renegotiation of the Abyei Protocol—by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has insisted that, “Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei.”

But this is deeply misguided. As the distinguished historian of modern Sudan Douglas H. Johnson has recently observed, U.S. efforts to compel the SPLM to give up even more of Abyei than they have over the past three decades—and despite the “final and binding” ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (fully accepted by the SPLM, but not the NIF/NCP regime)—are counterproductive. It is essential that the United States understand what it must do to further the peace process. As Johnson put it,

“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 [are essential].” (January 14, 2011) (see also my lengthy March 7, 2011 analysis).

The urgency of this recognition could not be greater. In the absence of a decisive signal to the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum—making clear that the U.S. will not support negotiations on the status of Abyei based on military seizure—war looms ever closer. Additionally, the Obama administration must make clear that there will be no progress on other bilateral issues until a just peace for Abyei is negotiated, one that fully respects the Abyei Protocol and the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. These issues include the normalizing of relations, ending sanctions, assistance with debt relief, and removal from the list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.

The last of these should not be a matter for negotiation in any event, but the evidence is clear that the Obama administration is in fact setting this dangerous precedent. Here again, U.S. policy has been largely determined by Gration, who sees no proof of terrorist support in Khartoum, despite ample evidence to the contrary. His abuse of the truth in these critical matters works to convince Khartoum that it can negotiate further with the U.S. on any issue it wishes—including Abyei.

In the reports that continue to stream in from the Abyei region, we see the consequences of a policy of expediency and disingenuousness, represented most conspicuously by Gration. This was not acknowledged in today’s White House statement; but realities on the ground, including potentially catastrophic human destruction, will soon compel acknowledgement.

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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