Abyei: A brief annotated chronology—key moments in its history following the CPA

By Eric Reeves


October 22, 2013 (SSNA) — Greater Sudan’s multiple crises frequently work to obscure one another, as well as their often significant relationships.  No region has suffered more from the complexity of interlocking crises than Darfur, but Abyei has also been under-reported and too often misunderstood, not least because the chronology of events is so infrequently recalled.  There is also frequently a factitious "impartiality" in reporting that does more to obscure realities than present a balanced picture of what is occurring.  Recent reporting on the murderous spree in Jonglei State—by what all evidence suggests are elements of David Yau Yau’s brutal militia force—have included no references to the source of Yau Yau’s supplies and weaponry, even as we have clear and compelling evidence that this source is the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum.  This evidence comes from several sources, including a UN sighting of an unidentified and radio-silent Antonov cargo plane flying directly over an area where Yau Yau’s forces were known to be concentrated.  The Small Arms Survey recently (July 2013) presented compelling military forensic evidence that the weapons and ammunition used by Yau Yau originated in Khartoum.

But perhaps nowhere is the lack of an awareness of chronology more consequential than for Abyei.  I offer here a brief chronology of events from the signing of the Abyei Protocol (May 26, 2004)—which would become part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 9, 2005)—through October 22, 2013, and the occasion of a failed summit on the Abyei issue in Juba between President Salva Kiir of the Republic of South Sudan and President Omar al-Bashir of the NIF/NCP regime. 

For a brief but highly informed and authoritative history of Abyei before 2004, Douglas Johnson’s "The Road Back from Abyei" (Rift Valley Institute, July 2011) is excellent.  So too is his explanation of the Abyei Protocol itself, and the workings and assumptions of the Abyei Boundaries Commission ("The Abyei Protocol Demystified," Sudan Tribune, December 2007, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article25125).  The language of the Abyei Protocol itself may be found at: http://www.sudantribune.com/IMG/pdf/20040527_abyei_protocol.pdf.

Other recent publications of note include a powerfully argued piece by Tim Flatman in the Sudan Tribune (September 25, 2013) and a series of highly informed essays by Luka Biong Deng, most appearing in the Sudan Tribune.  These offer in detail what is presented here in only the most schematic of terms (see also an "interactive" timeline recently produced by the Enough Project).  I have this past year offered a lengthy timeline of events that includes in greater detail various moments in Abyei’s recent history (Annex I of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012, www.CompromisingwithEvil.org).

As Abyei approaches the moment of truth in what was promised in the Abyei Protocol nine years ago, the danger of renewed conflict if terrifyingly high, with the potential to involve not only regional groups but the larger armed forces of Sudan and South Sudan.  Just today the Satellite Sentinel Project published satellite photographs showing unusually high military activity in the military bases around el-Obeid; as the report accompanying the satellite photography suggests, the targets of this military activity may well include not only locations south of Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan) but Abyei itself.  The purpose might be a renewed military offensive in South Kordofan, now that the dry season is beginning.  

But it may well be to prepare a response to the "unofficial" self-determination referendum organized by the Dinka Ngok of Abyei, scheduled for later this month, with results to be announced on October 31, 2013.  The date is hardly arbitrary: in its proposal of September 21, 2012  ("Final Status of the Abyei Area"), the African Union negotiating team led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki proposed that an October 2013 referendum be held in which only "residents of Abyei" would vote, thus excluding the migratory Misseriya Arab populations, who are in or pass through Abyei for a few months a year.  This proposal was ratified by the African Union Peace and Security Council, which has since backed away from that commitment in the face of adamant opposition by Khartoum.  The AU Peace and Security Council had originally committed to referring the matter to the UN Security Council if the northern regime continued to refuse to participate in arrangements spelled out in the AU proposal; all too predictably, this has not happened.

The inconsistent and feckless behavior of the AU negotiators and the AU Peace and Security Council in particular has convinced Khartoum that it can delay the "official" referendum indefinitely, and has already demonstrated an impressive array of stalling tactics.  But instead of calming the situation, inaction by the AU has left the Dinka Ngok of Abyei feeling that they will never have the support they need from the AU, and their referendum must be of their own making.  This aspiration collides with the reality of Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei in May 2011, and the creation of what has become—from a military point of view—a fait accompli.  The presence of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) is hardly an encouraging bulwark against renewed conflict (a single armored brigade from Ethiopia that has not proved effective in demilitarizing Abyei and has no mandate to protect civilians).  Given the proximity of Abyei to South Kordofan, where Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) have suffered consistent and substantial defeats at the hands of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, it is all too easy to imagine how conflict in the two regions may merge under the pressure of military action by Khartoum.

Annotated chronology (all emphases added)

• May 26, 2004: The Abyei Protocol is agreed to by negotiators from Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Naivasha, Kenya. The Abyei Protocol specifies, inter alia:

1.1.2  Abyei is "the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905

1.3  Simultaneously with the referendum for southern Sudan, the residents of Abyei will cast a separate ballot. The proposition voted on in the separate ballot will present the residents of Abyei with the following choices, irrespective of the results of the southern referendum:

(a) That Abyei retain its special administrative status in the north;

(b) That Abyei be part of Bahr el Ghazal.

6.1 The residents of Abyei Area shall be:

(a)  The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area;

(b)  The criteria of residence shall be worked out by  the Abyei Referendum Commission.

There shall be established by the Presidency, an Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) to define and demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905, referred to herein as Abyei Area.

At the time, the Protocol also designates Abyei as having a "special administrative status."  This was a signal that the two other areas of contention in peace negotiations—the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and Blue Nile—would enjoy no equivalent status or self-determination referendum, a decision that has culminated in renewed war in these regions and a campaign of civilian annihilation by Khartoum reminiscent of the genocidal assault on the Nuba during the 1990s.

• January 9, 2005: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed, including the Abyei Protocol (Naivasha, Kenya).

• July 2005: The Abyei Boundaries Commission, stipulated by the Abyei Protocol, submits its report, which is immediately and peremptorily rejected by Khartoum (despite having chosen five members of the commission).

• October 2007: tensions between the SPLA and government are steadily rising, as the terms of the CPA are increasingly ignored by Khartoum; this results in the SPLA temporarily suspending its participation in the Government of National Unity created by the CPA. Among the concerns precipitating the suspension were several deadlocked issues, most prominently Abyei.  Presciently, the International Crisis Group stated at the time: "What happens in Abyei is likely to determine whether Sudan consolidates the peace or returns to war" (October 12, 2007).

Many of the problems derived from an aggressive disinformation campaign by Khartoum, an effort to convince the Misseriya that they would lose their grazing rights if the Abyei self-determination referendum occurred per the terms of the CPA.  This is simply not true; on the contrary, the Abyei Protocol is quite specific in guaranteeing these rights.  Khartoum’s propaganda campaign persists, however, including through Misseriya proxies who are often well remunerated by the regime.  As time has passed, however, the Misseriya have come to trust Khartoum less and less.  But militarily, they still depend on the SAF to control Abyei; this is so despite earlier commitments by Misseriya leaders (January 2011) to the Dinka Ngok chiefs to negotiate grazing, water, and transit rights as they had traditionally done.

December 2007 and March 2008: There are armed clashes in Abyei, killing scores.

May 2008:  Khartoum deploys the notorious "Brigade 31" of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to Abyei town on March 31, 2008.  During fighting between the SAF and the SPLA, scores of people are killed, and as many as 50,000 people displaced mainly south to Agok in Warrap State and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. Much of Abyei town is completely destroyed; Roger Winter of USAID was present shortly after the fighting and declared that, "the town of Abyei has ceased to exist"  (http://www.enoughproject.org/publications/abyei-aflame-update-field-0).

June 2008: Khartoum and Juba agree to refer the issue of Abyei’s boundaries to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague).

July 2009: The Permanent Court of Arbitration rules on Abyei in a way quite favorable to Khartoum: Abyei is considerably reduced in geographical size, and in  the process the highly productive oil sites at Heglig and Bamboo are moved beyond Abyei’s boundaries (only the weakly productive Diffra site remains in Abyei, representing less than two percent of total oil production at the time).  Notably, the PCA rules only on the boundaries of Abyei; it makes no further determination about any other boundary issue, including the 1956 North/South boundary, which is the cartographic touchstone throughout the CPA.

Abyei is currently approximately 10,500 square kilometers, or just over 4,000 square miles (almost the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut).  The PCA ruling was accepted by both Juba and Khartoum as "final and binding."

July 2010: Salah Gosh, former head of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and also at the time a senior member of the NIF/NCP regime, declares that the Abyei issue is still not resolved: "The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling did not resolve the dispute."  It is clear that even with a favorable ruling from the PCA Khartoum had no intention of allowing the Abyei crisis to be resolved (http://www.sudantribune.com/Sudan-s-security-adviser-says-PCA.html).  Many wondered of course just what "final and binding" means to the NIF/NCP.

Fall 2010 – 2011:  Sensing that the "Abyei problem" may compromise the self-determination referendum in South Sudan in January 2011, the international community—led by the U.S. and the African Union—begins a slow but unmistakable abandonment of real commitment to an Abyei self-determination referendum, despite its status as a key element of the CPA.  The voices from the U.S. are most explicit, and thus destructive (see here especially Douglas Johnson’s incisive criticism of U.S. diplomacy in "The Road back from Abyei").  Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, said of Abyei at the critical moment that "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," referring to the January 2011 self-determination vote in South Sudan (Reuters [Khartoum], October 25, 2010) (again, Abyei is approximately 4,000 square miles in size even after the PCA ruling).

The message from the U.S. to Juba was clear: "compromise on Abyei, or we won’t support you as vigorously."  Declaring that now is the time for "compromise" on both sides, U.S. special envoy Scott Gration insists in October 2010—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 [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." (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69D6EV20101022 ) 

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that,

"Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei." (http://blogs.state.gov/sudan/index.php/site/entry/clinton_unsc_sudan)

This stunning failure to understand just how much the South had already compromised over Abyei virtually ensures that violence around Abyei and elsewhere would continue (Khartoum actually bombs Southern territory at the time of the January 2011 referendum—sending a potent signal).

January 2011 – May 21, 2011: Continual reports from the region, as well as extensive satellite reconnaissance by the Satellite Sentinel Project reveal a clear movement of SAF forces toward positions from which Abyei may easily be seized militarily.  A number of Dinka Ngok villages are targeted by both the SAF and its Misseriya Arab militia allies (e.g., Todach, Maker Abior, and others).  Encountering no serious international resistance to or even criticism of these military actions, SAF generals create a factitious casus belli on May 21 and in the space of two days seize all of Abyei, including Abyei town in the south of the region.  Some 120,000 Dinka Ngok are forced to flee to South Sudan.  Tens of thousands remain displaced to this day; tens of thousands of others live in Abyei but only in the most tenuous and makeshift of conditions.

The lack of vigorous and consequential objection to Khartoum’s actions has made it inevitable that Juba accept in place of withdrawal by Khartoum’s forces a new UN peace support mission (UN Interim Security Force for Abyei, UNISFA).  The force is authorized by the Security Council in June 2011, and takes the form of a very partially effective, significantly under-manned Ethiopian armored brigade.  Despite the presence of UNISFA, military and militia units allied with Khartoum remain in Abyei, especially in the northern region.  Moreover, UNISFA has no UN civilian protection mandate or human rights reporting responsibilities—terms insisted upon by Khartoum. 

Russia reiterates at this moment its proposal to partition Abyei, with the southern part going to South Sudan but the northern part going to Khartoum.  This is but another version of what is for Juba a completely unacceptable "compromise."  It will undoubtedly become Khartoum’s fallback position, if only because the regime knows Juba’s attitude to the proposal.

Abyei had effectively been annexed to the north, where al-Bashir and other senior NIF/NCP officials claimed it had always been and would always be.  Militarily, the situation was a fait accompli; Khartoum is prepared to wait out UNISFA before taking full military control.

[For a more detailed discussion of issues and responses in late 2010, see my discussion of the Abyei crisis in "Encouraging Khartoum: South Sudan Victimized by ‘Moral Equivalence,’" Sudan Tribune, December 21, 2010, http://www.sudanreeves.org/?p=2291]

June 5, 2011:  Encouraged by the lack of vigorous response to the military seizure of Abyei, the SAF launches a brutal campaign in South Kordofan, one that quickly becomes genocidal in nature in its assault on the Nuba people.  On September 1, 2011, still facing no strenuous international response or reaction, the SAF launches its military assault on Blue Nile.

June 27, 2011: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1990, authorizing UNISFA; its initial mandate is for six months—almost two and a half years ago.

2011 – 2013:  The Dinka Ngok displaced militarily from their homeland have not for the most part recovered their lands and livelihoods; humanitarian access is limited by Khartoum to the southern part of Abyei.

September 21, 2012:  The AU proposes formally a detailed plan for Abyei that envisions a referendum in which only "permanent residents" will be allowed to vote (http://www.rssnegotiationteam.org/au-abyei-proposal.html).  The AU proposal further specifies that to be "resident" one must have "permanent abode in the Abyei area."  The proposal—entirely consistent with the original Abyei Protocol (2004)—is endorsed by the African Union Peace and Security Council.  There is even an implicit threat of referral to the UN Security Council should Khartoum not accept the plan.  Khartoum holds fast in refusing, however, and the AU blinks.

January 27, 2013: The African Union Peace and Security Council reaffirms its support for the Abyei referendum as outlined in the September 21, 2012 proposal by African Union mediators:

The Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU), at its 353rd meeting held at the level of Heads of State and Government, on 25 January 2013, adopted the following decision on the situation between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan…

Reaffirms that the Proposal submitted by the AUHIP, on 21 September 2012, on the Final Status of the Abyei Area represents a fair, equitable and workable solution to the dispute, which takes into account existing agreements and antecedents, as well as the needs and interests of the communities on the ground.

May 4, 2013: Misseriya militia kill Kuol Deng Kuol, Paramount Chief of the Dinka Ngok.  For many Abyei residents, those displaced, and those in the diaspora, this is the last straw: the killing of a good and thoughtful man while traveling in Abyei in an effort to bridge gaps in understanding between Dinka and Misseriya.  This has become the prism through which many now view the Abyei crisis; it has given tremendous energy and commitment to the holding of an "unofficial" Abyei self-determination referendum, one that has brought people of the region home from as far away as Australia.  For a detailed account of the form this referendum will take, see Asharq Al-Awsat (London), October 21, 2013, http://www.aawsat.net/2013/10/article55319913).

It should be noted that there have been many additional killings, lootings, and burnings in Abyei, a fact noted by South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Nhial Deng:

"The killing of [the] chief was not just an incident. It was preceded by reports of regular killings in the area. The list of those who have been killed has been filed and the United Nations has the details and we believe the killing of the chief will not be taken lightly nor [do] we expect the international community to consider [Kuol’s death] a normal thing or usual business … We hold the government of Sudan responsible because those who killed the chief are under the control of the government of Sudan. They are no stranger to Sudan," he added. (Sudan Tribune, May 8, 2013) (for further details, see Sudan Tribune, May 4, 2013, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article46459)

October 21, 2013: The African Peace and Security Council (yet again) "reiterates"

…its earlier communiqués and press statements on the issue of Abyei, including its acceptance of the Proposal submitted by the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), on 21 September 2012, as representing a fair, equitable and workable solution to the dispute between the two countries, which takes into account existing Agreements entered into by the Parties, as well as the needs and interests of the communities on the ground. Council called on the two countries to resume their discussions on the final status of Abyei on the basis of the AUHIP Proposal, bearing in mind the need to ensure that Abyei serves as a bridge between Sudan and South Sudan, as envisaged in the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Despite a proposal that is "fair, equitable, and workable," the AU can’t do more than bring itself to call on Juba and Khartoum to "resume discussions on the final status of Abyei."  But the "final status of Abyei" was precisely what the September 2012 AU proposal settled.  This not a plea for more reasonable discussion, but a desperate play for time by an irresolute body that has no will to confront the regime in Khartoum.  It is an effort to forestall even the unofficial referendum, which is—in any form—almost three years belated: "[The AU Peace and Security Council urges] the Parties to refrain from any unilateral action and statement that may impede progress towards the search for a lasting solution."  But it is precisely because of such dithering and disingenuousness that the AU has made no progress whatsoever in convincing Khartoum to accept the proposal, which the regime adamantly rejects.  If we are looking for an example of unjustified "unilateral" action, we should of course look no further than Khartoum’s May 2011 military seizure of Abyei.

October 21, 2013: In a blunt effort to put more pressure on Juba, the Wall Street Journal reports (October 21): "[A] spokesman for Sudan’s foreign ministry Rabie Abdelaty said that Khartoum may be forced to exert more pressure on its landlocked neighbor, including blocking oil exports, "should the two nations fail to agree on Abyei."

October 22, 2013: A summit meeting between Kiir and al-Bashir in Juba, widely believed to have Abyei as its overwhelming concern, yields nothing of substance.  This will gives strong impetus to the self-organized referendum by the Dinka Ngok. 

The Future

What does this brief retrospective suggest about the future of Abyei?  On October 22, 2013, the Satellite Sentinel Project released satellite photography with alarming implications:

DigitalGlobe imagery confirms increased troop movements and a significant buildup of ground and air materiel at several military installations [particularly in and around el-Obeid and Kadugli].

These indicators together point to a potential military campaign threatening vulnerable communities in the region. When considered along with the recent destruction of Buram Bridge in South Kordofan, this buildup suggests a possible new offensive, even before the rainwaters subside. Since the strategic advantage from destroying the Buram Bridge would be limited once the river dries, the Satellite Sentinel Project’s analysts warn that an offensive might come earlier than expected. Increased aerial assets could also play a role in an offensive against the disputed Abyei region, where the Ngok Dinka community is planning a unilateral referendum.

The number of tanks has more than tripled at El Obeid Headquarters Garrison, and the number of heavy equipment transporters and armored personnel carriers has grown, signaling a level of activity that has not been observed in the past year. A sequence of DigitalGlobe images collected between October 2 and 12, 2013 at El Obeid West show the massing and departure of a military convey. The Satellite Sentinel Project is issuing a human security warning for civilians living in Buram, Tess, and other areas to the south of Kadugli in Sudan’s South Kordofan state. Re-positioned aerial assets also place the highly contested Abyei area within range of the Sudanese army’s arsenal. 

This is the context in which to understand a series of bellicose and extravagantly tendentious statements from Khartoum and its surrogates:

The former [Khartoum-backed] official of Abyei administration [Mac Yak Kor] further urged the Sudanese government to take precautionary security measures to protect civilians there in the event of any problem with "SPLM groups." (Sudan Tribune, October 19, 2013)

And Khartoum’s UN ambassador ominously claimed on May 29th of this year:

Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman said the Comprehensive Peace Agreement clearly stipulated that Abyei was an integral part of the territory of Sudan, and that all its people were Sudanese citizens. Moreover, Sudan was responsible for protecting them until the final status was decided. (UN document at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sc11017.doc.htm)

There is a political reason for this transparent mendacity; and an astute political assessment of the implications of Khartoum’s willingness to use all necessary means not to "lose" Abyei has been offered by John Ashworth (UN IRIN [Nairobi], October 10, 2013):

"Perhaps the most valuable commodity in Abyei now is political capital: neither Juba nor Khartoum can afford to lose what has become a zero-sum game," [said Ashworth].  In terms of natural resources, water (notably the River Kiir, also known as the Bahr al-Arab), pasture and some arable land are Abyei’s main assets. For South Sudan, and most Ngok Dinka, Abyei is historically and culturally part of the south, as well as a cause the Juba government uses to unite its disparate peoples. 

In addition, the Ngok Dinka link their physical security to being part of South Sudan. Their right to hold a referendum is enshrined in the CPA.  For his part, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, already criticized for having "lost" the south to the "enemy," is facing widespread social unrest and "determined that no other parts of Sudan are lost on his watch," said Ashworth. Nor can Bashir afford to antagonize the Misseriya, who have already spoken out against Khartoum’s perceived failure to fully protect their interests.

Does the African Union understand this political dynamic?  Its negotiators and Peace and Security Council give no sign that they do.

What should be done?

African Union dithering has likely lost all opportunity to create a "soft border" of Abyei, possibly serving as a model for the entire North/South border.  But the idea has much support in many quarters, and is perhaps best articulated by Jérôme Tubiana:

"This [a referendum determined purely by numbers] puts Abyei at risk of becoming an encysted problem like Western Sahara," he said, adding that crisis-easing options such as power-sharing were almost impossible to invoke now because a referendum had been promised to the Ngok Dinka and even, via the CPA, agreed to by Khartoum. 

"The real question is whether the border needs to be an ethnic one. Why can’t a Dinka be a Sudanese citizen, a Misseriya a South Sudanese? This question goes beyond Abyei area and extends on all parts of the new border. The AU insists on this border being a ‘soft border.’ Now it’s time to give substance to this idea, and define which kind of freedoms should be given to the people living on both sides: freedom of movements, of trade, to vote, dual citizenship.  Everything should be open to discussion, and Abyei, rather than the deadlock it is, should be turned into a model for this soft border.

"These discussions should involve more than just the governments, but engage the border communities, including the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya in Abyei."  In a recent report, Kush, a Juba-based peace-building NGO, advocated a similar pan-out from the referendum, warning that a mere ballot was unlikely to resolve animosity on the ground. Barely 10 percent of displaced Ngok Dinka surveyed by Kush thought a peaceful resolution of the crisis was likely.  Without radical changes to the area’s "security, economy, governance, rule of law, and the overall social wellbeing of the population," lasting peace will elude Abyei, the report argued. (UN IRIN [Nairobi]. October 10, 2013)

That this proposal for a "soft border" now has so little chance of success is a function of Khartoum’s relentless move southward over a period of decades and the regime’s adamant refusal to compromise—even as the Dinka Ngok and Juba are being pressured by many to give up entirely on the idea of an Abyei that has a chance to break free from Khartoum’s domination (here it might be noted that Abyei was promised a self-determination referendum by the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement that ended Sudan’s first civil war; the referendum was never allowed).  Diplomatic malfeasance has abounded; reasonable proposals have been ignored; and the end result is that Abyei is on the verge of becoming the catalyst for greater Sudan’s third North/South war in the past half century.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has published extensively on Sudan; his most recent book is Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012, available at no cost: www.CompromisingWithEvil.

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