Sudan: Breaking the Abyei Deadlock
Africa Briefing N°47, 12 October 2007
The dispute over the Abyei region is the most volatile aspect of Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and risks unravelling that increasingly shaky deal. The CPA granted the disputed territory, which has a significant percentage of Sudan’s oil reserves, a special administrative status under the presidency and a 2011 referendum to decide whether to join what might then be an independent South. However, in violation of the CPA, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is refusing the “final and binding” ruling of the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) report, leaving an administrative and political vacuum. Negotiations between the NCP and the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/SPLM) are stalled, and both sides are building up their military forces around Abyei. The SPLM’s 11 October decision to suspend its participation in the Government of National Unity in protest of the NCP’s non-implementation of the CPA, marks the most dangerous political escalation since the peace deal was signed. The international community needs to re-engage across the board on CPA implementation but nowhere more urgently than Abyei, where the risks of return to war are rising.
On its face, resolution of the Abyei issue appears relatively straightforward. The sequencing of implementation was clearly set out in the CPA’s Abyei Protocol, beginning with border demarcation. However, the situation continues to fester, mainly due to NCP intransigence. Bringing peace to the region will require addressing both the national political dimension between the NCP and the SPLM and the local dimension between the Ngok Dinka and the neighbouring Misseriya communities. The following five steps offer a way forward:
* The CPA’s international guarantors, led by the U.S., which authored the Abyei Protocol, must send a strong, coordinated message to the NCP that it is legally bound by the ABC report and expected to implement it in good faith. Those who signed the CPA, and who all need to become more active again, include Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK, the U.S., the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and its International Partners Forum, the Arab League, the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU).
* Crisis Group has argued in past reports for targeted, multilateral sanctions to influence the regime to implement its commitments under the CPA and in Darfur. Given the fragility of Abyei, pressure is urgently needed to obtain acceptance of the ABC report.
* Tension in and around Abyei must be de-escalated. The parties view the key measures – demarcation of boundaries and appointment of the local administration – as determining the likely outcome of the referendum and have dug in accordingly. The international community can help change this dynamic by facilitating independent dialogue between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka in order to strengthen the guarantees for continued Misseriya grazing rights in Abyei beyond the referendum and by increasing development projects in Dinka and Misseriya areas. These efforts should be led by the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), with the full backing of the CPA’s international guarantors.
* Oil’s role in the impasse must be acknowledged and dealt with in good faith and the wealth-sharing provisions of the Abyei Protocol carried out. While Abyei’s oil is being depleted and revenue estimates beyond 2007 begin to drop significantly, existing fields contain the majority of oil in the North, and revenues from them are critical to the survival of the NCP. Crisis Group calculates that revenue from Abyei’s oilfields was roughly $599 million for 2005 and $670 million for 2006. We estimate it at $529 million for 2007. More generally, oil is tied directly to the CPA’s viability. The parties need to open a new, transparent dialogue on oil issues, including a plan to establish a revenue-sharing agreement between North and South beyond 2011, for the contingency that Abyei votes to join an independent South. The National Petroleum Commission, the joint NCP-SPLM oversight body created by the CPA, must be allowed to play its role and have direct access to all oil production-related data.
* The newly appointed head of UNMIS, Ashraf Qazi, should prioritise working with the parties to establish a demilitarised zone in Abyei in order to separate the militaries and reduce the risk of renewed conflict. Thousands of Misseriya troops have recently opted to join the SPLA, a move resented by the NCP, which led to a recent dangerous confrontation between army (SAF) and SPLA forces. While the focus should initially be on Abyei, a demilitarised zone could eventually be extended along the entire North-South border.
Abyei’s fate is tied directly to that of the CPA. While Abyei itself is a bone of contention, it is also tied into broader CPA challenges such as transparency and revenue sharing in the oil sector and the demarcation of the North-South border. If peace takes hold in Abyei and implementation moves forward, it can be a model for other North-South border issues and unlock the implementation of additional contentious issues. If the dispute is not resolved soon, however, it will increasingly retard progress on broader CPA implementation and encourage the country’s descent back into war.