Conflict in Abyei Could Reignite South Sudan’s Civil War
If the U.N. withdraws peacekeepers from a long-contested oil-rich enclave, it's likely to spark further fighting in an already unstable region.
ABYEI, Sudan/South Sudan — Landlocked and lawless, the region of Abyei straddles Sudan and war-torn South Sudan’s borders, yet the arid expanse belongs to neither country. When the two countries signed a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, which led to South Sudan’s independence, they couldn’t agree on boundary lines. As a result, Abyei’s status remains unresolved to this day.
The oil-rich Abyei box, as it’s called, is shared by the Misseriya Arab nomads from the north and the Ngok Dinka, a South Sudanese cattle-herding tribe. After fighting erupted in 2011, Sudan and South Sudan agreed to allow a neutral peacekeeping mission to foster security until a political solution was reached. Seven years later, political stalemate in the contested region is threatening to destabilize an already fragile region. With no government, judicial system, or police force, Abyei’s 165,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese inhabitants depend on thousands of Ethiopian peacekeepers, part of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, to maintain stability.
But their mission may be winding down. In May, the U.N. Security Council agreed to extend the peacekeeping mission’s mandate in the disputed area while scaling back troops. Unless both South Sudan’s and Sudan’s governments show “measurable progress” on border demarcation, the U.N. says the peacekeeping mandate won’t be renewed after the six-month extension, which expires in October. The mandate also states that without progress, the number of authorized troops in Abyei will decrease to 3,959 in October from 4,500.
Further reductions or an end to the peacekeeping mission could have dire consequences not only for Abyei but for South Sudan’s crippling five-year civil war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions. “If you trigger further instabilities in Abyei box, it can have a domino effect for what’s happening in South Sudan … making it more chaotic,” said Stefano Ellero of the European Union development team. If the U.N. troops pull out, it would have a “deadly” effect on the present situation, turning Abyei into a “no man’s land where anybody can come in and do whatever he wants,” Ellero said.
What was meant to be an interim six-month mission is now well into its seventh year and has transformed the U.N. into the area’s de facto government. Some peacekeepers say they’re concerned that the absence of political progress has created a vacuum, threatening law and order and the area’s overall growth.
Two conflicts in 2008 and 2011 have reduced most of Abyei to rubble. Derelict buildings line Abyei town’s sparse dirt roads. Hospitals have scant supplies, and schools lack desks, chairs, and often teachers. When Sudan last bombed the town seven years ago, most of the population fled to the south, closer to South Sudan’s border where they felt safer, leaving the bustling town of Abyei a shell of what it once was.
In recent years, some people have started returning to the center in an attempt to rebuild their lives. While progress has stalled at the political level, the two sides have stopped waiting for their governments to reach a solution and begun reconciling. “Our communities have accepted to live together here,” said Akonon Ajuanja, a Ngok Dinka chief in Abyei. “We have no problem with the Misseriya. Our problem is with the Sudanese government.” Doelbit Ali, a Misseriya nomad, said: “Each person says this land is theirs, but we don’t want to get involved with the politics.” Although he believes Abyei belongs to Sudan, he says he likes the Dinka and wants the politicians to “stay away.”
Since signing a grassroots peace agreement in 2016, leaders from the north and the south have established a peace committee, meeting once a week to address issues such as violence, theft, and cattle raiding. They’ve also created the Amiet market, which has become a source of livelihood for both groups and is situated between where the Misseriya graze with their cattle and where the Ngok Dinka live.
“Even though there is a stalemate regarding the political situation, it’s very important that these people at the grassroots level live in harmony,” said Victor Onenchan, the head of office in Abyei for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which has been funding and facilitating the peace committee since 2017.
Despite progress at the local level, humanitarian organizations and residents say Abyei’s situation is fragile with both the Dinka and Misseriya blaming the other side for sending in armed men in attempts to destabilize the area. “Sudan doesn’t want the Dinka to settle here. It’s their goal to kill and rape people,” said an Abyei resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety. Since Sudan controls the oil fields in the north of the box, he says its government sends soldiers to disrupt the peace so that the area won’t be overrun by South Sudanese, who have been spreading out, although not near the oil fields. It appears that Sudan’s government doesn’t want too many South Sudanese near Abyei, lest they get too comfortable or stake a claim to the area.
This month, a 19-year-old Dinka woman, Nyawach Yel, was beaten and almost raped by two Misseriya men from Sudan while walking from Abyei town to visit her mother in a village four hours away. “They called me over and said this is the place we rape women,” she said. Sitting on a bed in the yard outside her small hut in Abyei town, Yel’s voice is barely audible as she clasps her hands and looks at the floor. “I thought they were going to kill me.”
Yel escaped her attackers but says the harassment outside Abyei town, where there are often fewer U.N. peacekeepers, is rife. She says the Sudanese are trying to provoke the South Sudanese to retaliate so that they can burn their houses to the ground and chase them out of the area. The Sudanese deny the allegations. “Crimes are happening because of the lack of government on both sides,” said Jama el-Sadiq, the chairperson for the peace committee on the Sudanese side. He says the government in Khartoum has assured him that it wants peace.
Luka Biong Deng, a professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. National Defense University, warns that without the U.N., Sudan will use the opportunity to gain control, which could provoke a reaction from the south. The U.N., together with the United States, might be able to push both governments to reach a solution, Deng says, while gradually reducing U.N. forces in Abyei and increasing funding for other development projects. While the U.N. says it will continue to play a role in urging both parties to move closer to finalizing Abyei’s status, it’s “ultimately dependent on the will of Sudan and South Sudan to resolve this outstanding issue,” said a U.N. Security Council diplomat who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Previous attempts by both countries to find solutions have failed. In 2013, South Sudan held a unilateral referendum in which residents voted almost unanimously in favor of Abyei joining the south, but it wasn’t recognized by Sudan’s or South Sudan’s government or by the international community. Sudan is pushing for a joint administration between the two sides; however, South Sudan’s government wants to hold another referendum. If the two governments continue to fail to resolve the conflict, the international community — and the local one — will have no choice but to take on the hard work of reconciliation and coexistence themselves.
South Sudan’s government has admitted as much. Unless the U.N. and other countries take control of the process, it will never be resolved, says Deng Arop Kuol, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s spokesman for Abyei: “The two presidents have reached a point where they can’t solve this.”