USIP’s Jon Temin and Jacki Wilson discuss the recent hostilities in Abyei, Sudan – and why it threatens the stability of the soon-to-be Republic of South Sudan and the overall region.

May 23, 2011

USIP’s Jon Temin and Jacki Wilson discuss the recent hostilities in Abyei, Sudan – and why it threatens the stability of the soon-to-be Republic of South Sudan and the overall region.

What sparked these hostilities?

Jon Temin: Abyei has been claimed by both northern and southern Sudan for years. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) called for a referendum on whether Abyei would be part of the north or the south to take place in January 2011 (simultaneous to the referendum on southern secession, which resulted in an overwhelming vote for secession), but the Abyei referendum was scuttled because the north and south couldn't agree on who would be eligible to vote.

Since then the fate of Abyei has been the subject of negotiations between the north and south, with little progress made. At the same time, there have been skirmishes of increasing intensity between the northern and southern militaries in and around Abyei in recent weeks. There were recent accusations that the southern military attacked northern troops as they were withdrawing from Abyei; the north claims that their occupation of Abyei is in response to those attacks, and that Abyei will remain part of the north. The key question now is how the south will respond, and whether their response will include military actions.

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What are the concerns if this gets out of hand?

Jacki Wilson: The situation is extremely tense and risky, with northern and southern military forces with heavy weapons facing off, and Abyei reportedly occupied by northern troops. One risk is that military clashes could escalate, drawing in armed units and other armed groups from other areas of Sudan. Some of these groups could truly upset the relative balance of power. In addition to the obvious humanitarian challenges, as people are displaced by fighting, there is a grave risk to chances for long term peace between northern and southern Sudan if they cannot resolve Abyei. Both sides must be able to look toward a vision of a peaceful relationship based upon respect for international law and a solution to Abyei that meets the needs of its people, who continue to bear the burdens of indecision and brinksmanship.

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Is the U.N. mission capable of protecting these civilians? Does it have the political mandate to do so?

Jacki Wilson: The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) has responded to recent events by relocating some troops, but that is not likely to be sufficient to completely protect civilians despite that being the core U.N. mandate. In the past, armed forces and government elements have restricted UNMIS access to areas experiencing violence. In addition, the U.N. does not have adequate force to intervene between forces actively engaged in fighting utilizing heavy weapons. So the effectiveness of the U.N. in large measure depends upon the actions of the antagonists in the critical coming days.

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What is the international community doing to prevent further bloodshed and instability? What CAN the international community do?

Jon Temin: The international community has been deeply engaged on Abyei for some time, but has limited leverage.

Everybody recognizes that the fate of Abyei is the issue most likely to restart civil war in Sudan. The U.S. was the principal architect of the Abyei referendum, so U.S. policymakers feel a certain amount of responsibility for what happens in Abyei. The U.S. has warned that if northern military action in Abyei continues, the "roadmap" towards normalized relations between Washington and Khartoum may be invalidated. Simultaneously, an African Union panel led by former Southern African President Thabo Mbeki has been focused on negotiating a resolution to the Abyei crisis for months, and is due to deliver a proposal on Abyei's fate soon. It remains to be seen whether these recent events will derail that proposal.

The U.N. is also working to resolve Abyei's status - a delegation from the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to visit Abyei on Sunday, but that trip was cancelled due to the hostilities. With all this prior international engagement on Abyei unable to prevent the recent hostilities, it is uncertain whether outside actors will be able to halt the fighting and push the north and south to agree on Abyei's final status.

Jacki Wilson: In terms of what the international community can or should do, the key CPA guarantors must clearly state the consequences of continued military action, including potential negative impact on negotiations of key issues like debt relief and potentially removing Sudan from various U.S. sanctions for the north, and robust support from donors for a newly independent southern Sudan come July. Truthfully, neither northern nor southern Sudan can afford to risk these benefits or put the oil sector at risk. The international community must be willing to act on any threat to take action. The situation as it stands demands seriousness of purpose and assertive diplomacy to prevent a devastating return to war which is perilously close at this moment.

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What is USIP doing to resolve tensions in this particularly volatile area of Sudan?

USIP has worked with the Abyei community since 2007. These experiences, including a workshop held in Abyei in 2009, clearly indicated the extent to which the situation on the ground in Abyei is controlled from Khartoum and Juba, not from within Abyei. In fact, the community itself has suffered greatly at no fault of its own, but due to political actors who may believe they know what is best. Many observers say that if you bring together people from the communities, both those who live in Abyei and those who graze through the area, they could find a solution through mediated discussions. Indeed, an ongoing USIP project in the western grazing corridor between Southern Kordofan and Northern Bahr el Ghazal demonstrates that community leaders and government officials can find solutions to difficult challenges when given the opportunity.

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