The cold war between Sudan and South Sudan could reignite into a devastating armed conflict if they do not quickly resolve their dispute over the final status of Abyei, a resource-rich area straddling the two countries’ ill-defined border. An African Union High Level Implementation Panel, or AUHIP, plan, which offers the best-available vehicle for resolving the territory’s final status, is already on the table. If the international community places its weight behind that plan and the parties finally commit to act on it, a deepening of the crisis can be averted. Unfortunately, two key obstacles stand in the way of a resolution of Abyei’s final status: (1) the lack of cooperation between the two governments, particularly Sudan’s outright rejection of the AUHIP Proposal; and (2) the misperception among the people on the ground that allowing a self-determination referendum in Abyei would be a zero-sum game.1 Misconceptions about the referendum process are especially troubling since they could enable spoilers to fuel violence during the annual Misseriya migration through the territory. A clear commitment from the international community to pressure the Sudans to come to an enforceable agreement on Abyei’s final status is essential to mitigate further destabilizing violence.
On September 21, 2012, the AUHIP presented a proposal that provides mechanisms for resolving Abyei’s final status, and defines and protects the rights of those living within and moving through the area. If implemented, the AUHIP Proposal on the Final Status of the Abyei Area, or the AUHIP Proposal, would protect the migratory, civic, political and economic rights of the two communities with the greatest stake in Abyei: the southern-aligned Ngok Dinka, who have historically inhabited Abyei, and the northern-identifying nomadic Misseriya pastoralists, who have traditionally traversed the area with their herds.
Initial momentum to push for a resolution of Abyei’s final status – especially among members of the African Union Peace and Security Council, or A.U. PSC – appears to be waning. After the parties failed to even meet during an initial six week negotiation period, the A.U. PSC extended the window for negotiations until the late January 2013 A.U. Heads of State Summit. An early January summit between Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir produced no discernible progress.6 Counterproductively, the outcome document from the summit conditioned discussion of Abyei’s final status on the resolution of thorny administrative issues. In light of the long history of unimplemented agreements concerning Abyei’s status – the government of Sudan has signed over half a dozen agreements on the subject– many worry that the issue could again be relegated to the sidelines. Historically, delays in implementing agreements concerning Abyei have led to devastating violence on the ground.
A December 2012 Enough Project trip to Abyei revealed the depth of mistrust and polarization between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities. Both communities expressed fears of violence during the Misseriya migration, which started earlier than usual this year because of low rainfall.Typically, migrations begin in January and last through May. People interviewed from both sides agreed that the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, or UNISFA,alone was responsible for preventing armed conflict from breaking out. The Enough Project’s research visit also made clear that the two communities that have suffered the most as a consequence of Abyei’s legal limbo remain the least informed about the contents of the AUHIP Proposal. The lack of information on the ground contributes to the misperception that a referendum in Abyei pits the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka against each other in a way that only one community can win. This is far from either the letter or the spirit of the AUHIP Proposal and will only foment anxiety that could lead to violence. Ultimately, only a decision on the final status of Abyei will create the political stability necessary for sustainable peace in the area. A credible referendum and an effective administrative structure for the area will ensure the continued rights of the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya, allowing both communities to benefit equitably and securely from Abyei’s natural resources.