It “looked like the two sides were almost ready to go to war” in Sudan’s fraught border region of Abyei said the U.S. special envoy recently in a briefing. The situation was defused two weeks ago when the northern and southern Sudanese armies agreed to withdraw all unauthorized forces from the region by May 17. But as of yesterday, May 18, the withdrawal had not begun, according to a source on the ground.
Since January, both sides have continually agreed to withdraw all unauthorized forces from Abyei, leaving Joint Integrated Units (joint units made up of members of both the northern and southern armies), as the only security force in the region. But after negotiating two agreements detailing the security arrangements (Kadugli 1 and 2), and then signing two more agreements on implementation (the first in early March and the second in early May), the region is still crawling with armed actors aligned with both the northern and southern armies. Moreover, since January, Abyei has seen an escalation—not reduction—in the number of armed actors and military positions within its borders.
The lack of implementation is unsurprising given the level of distrust between the two sides and their constituencies, and the fact that the politics driving the escalation of tensions—still no agreement on whether Abyei belongs to the North or the South—have not been resolved. Just days after the latest agreement, armed actors shot and wounded four U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei, in what seemed a clear sign from armed groups on the ground that withdrawal would not happen any time soon. According to a U.N. document seen by Enough, the assailants were identified as armed Misseriya.
Meetings between northern and southern army representatives and the U.N. mission over the withdrawal are ongoing. In his briefing, Special Envoy Princeton Lyman said that a clear timeline had not been established.
According to a number of experts, the deployment of forces both in and around Abyei by the northern and southern Sudanese governments is a means of shifting the dynamics of negotiations over the status of Abyei, and thus over other key post referendum issues. For the North, raising the stakes on Abyei may lead to larger concessions on oil revenues from the South after secession. For the South, maintaining a security presence is an assertion of its commitment to the region, a rebalancing of the playing field, and a rejection of the North’s attempt to make the southern government negotiate under threat.
But these tactics so far have resulted in the razing of several villages, the loss of lives, and the displacement of tens of thousands, and have heightened the potential for further civilian destruction.
The U.N. Security Council’s visit to the region next Monday is an opportunity to place pressure on the leadership of both sides to act in the interest of civilians. With less than two months left before secession, it is time to defuse tensions on the ground and get back to work on a political solution.
Photo: A family flees from Abyei by truck after a series of clashes late February (Tim Freccia/ Enough Project)