Sudanese government troops remain in the disputed border region of Abyei, in contempt of a deadline agreed to by northern and southern officials that all troops would withdraw from the area by last Friday.
In public remarks, Sudanese officials have been intransigent—and misleading—about why the deadline was not met. As reported by Reuters, army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saeed said:
We are not against a withdrawal but we are waiting for the complete deployment of the Ethiopian troops. So far only half of the Ethiopian troops are on the ground. […] A withdrawal without the complete deployment of the Ethiopian troops would disrupt Abyei's administration. The [Ethiopia] agreement says the withdrawal will come after the complete [U.N.] deployment.
Sudan’s deputy information minister made similar remarks to AFP.
In May, the Sudanese army invaded and occupied Abyei, prompting over 100,000 people to flee. In response, the international community pushed the two parties toward an agreement that set up temporary political and security arrangements for the area until a final resolution—on whether Abyei belongs to the North or the South—was decided.
Contrary to what Sudanese officials are saying publicly, the withdrawal of both northern and southern forces was never explicitly made contingent on either the full deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers or the status of the Abyei administration. If anything, the language of the agreement itself and the Security Council resolution that mandated the Ethiopian peacekeeping force initially left the exact timing of the troop withdrawal—and how it would be tied to the deployment of peacekeepers—vague.
But with the signing of a withdrawal timeline in early September, which not only set a final deadline for demilitarization, but laid out intermediary deadlines for both sides to gradually pull back, it was clear that the expectation would be for troops to withdraw by September 30, regardless of other moving pieces of the agreement.
“There is no ambiguity here,” said Luka Biong Deng, the lead southern official on the joint North-South body overseeing the administration of Abyei, in a press release refuting Sudanese officials’ public claims.
Without a full withdrawal of northern soldiers from Abyei, the displaced population will not return.
“The Government of Sudan simply believes that as long as their soldiers are in Abyei area, the Ngok Dinka will not return,” Biong said. “No referendum will be held, no final status will be achieved and Sudan will continue to act as if Abyei is part of Sudan.”
Following the crisis in May, the international community—in particular the U.N., the A.U. high-level implementation panel, the U.S., and Ethiopia—responded quickly, pushing through an agreement that introduced a presumably more robust peacekeeping force to secure the area. But without a full withdrawal of northern troops, Ethiopian peacekeepers will be in the awkward position of being embedded next to some of the very forces from which they were meant to secure the area and its population.
A lack of international effort to press Khartoum on implementation now will be a signal that the world has acquiesced to the Sudanese government’s decision to militarily, rather than politically, resolve the Abyei dispute.
So far, the international response has been limited.
“We urge the parties to implement the agreement they reached earlier this month and to withdraw their forces from the Abyei area so as to facilitate the return of the displaced population and ensure the smooth beginning of the migration season,” said the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday.
Photo: Abyei residents fled south in May (Enough/Tim Freccia)