Sudan: Abyei’s Independence Referendum

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Misseriya tribes protest against the plebiscite to decide whether Abyei will belong to Sudan or South Sudan outside the U.N headquarters in Khartoum. Image from Reuters.

After a decade long civil war, the United States helped to broker a peace agreement in 2005 within Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) assured that the South would be given a referendum to break from their Northern counterpart. In addition, the CPA promised that Abyei, a small region within central Sudan, would vote independently to determine their geographical alignment. However, this vote never took place—Sudanese forces invaded in 2011 in response to South Sudanese aggression, leaving dozens dead, seizing control of the region, and internally displacing thousands. On 25 November, 2013 the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to extend the mandate of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (ANISFA), a small peace keeping force designated to contain the regional conflict, until 31 May, 2014. The Security Council further emphasized the Force’s mandate to protect civilians from what is seen as the imminent threat of violence within the region.

Tension between Sudan and South Sudan is complicated by cultural and linguistic differences in Abyei, which characterizes much of the region.

The Abyei area is commonly regarded as the bridge between the north and south of Sudan. The Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka ethnicities have shared resources and cattle grazing areas in Abyei since the 18th century when both groups occupied Kordofan province. However, the arming of the Misseriya by the government of Sudan during the first civil war and the alignment of the Ngok Dinka with the [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] sparked the modern day dispute over which group could rightfully claim the Abyei territory. As the fighting resulted in the displacement of the Ngok Dinka from the area at the end of the second civil war, the Misseriya considered Abyei as their own – a claim bitterly contested by the Dinka.

After an initial delay over voting eligibility, the African Union (AU) proposed a comprehensive agreement in 2012 which would culminate in October 2013, when Abyei’s plebiscite would take place. Tension between the AU and Khartoum collapsed the agreement, however. Sudan continues to insist that Misseriya nomads be allowed to participate in the vote. Yet South Sudan is fiercely opposed to their participation, insisting that only the region’s permanent residents, the Ngok Dinka community, are eligible to vote. After the AU’s abandonment, the Ngok Dinka held a unilateral referendum on November 31, 2013  in which an overwhelming majority voted in favor of joining South Sudan. While the South has been ambivalent concerning the referendum, Sudan’s Council of States has condemned the plebiscite as illegitimate. Misseriya tribal leader Mokhtar Babo Nimr has referred to the plebiscite as “an illegal process… Abyei is a northern land that belongs to Sudan and we are on it and will continue to live there because it is our land.”

Failure to produce a comprehensive solution in Abyei is likely to re-aggravate tribal animosity, cause regional conflict throughout the Horn of Africa, and spill over into central Africa through the neighboring Chad. Renewed conflict between North and South Sudan would be a catastrophe as was the case in Sudan’s civil war in which over two million lives were taken and was the longest running civil-conflict in history.  Humanitarian access would become very difficult, denying aid to more than 4.7 million people dependent on foreign aid. The United States has backed a solution to the region which “will allow the residents of Abyei to have self-determination but also guarantee the right of those who migrate through on a regular basis.” In 2009, John Kerry noted that “successful negotiations will require redoubled efforts from the United States.”  Following the Ngok Dinka’s referendum, the State Department announced a three-fold strategy for defusing regional tensions, including in Abyei: (1) Assist in the development and/or reinvigoration of U.N.-assisted disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs; (2) restore and strengthen NGO operations to provide vital development assistance and conflict prevention resources, and to offset the potential for conflict once new borders are drawn; and (3) as appropriate, provide direct technical support to local administrations.

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The Greater Nile Oil Pipeline and oil reserves make Abyei particularly salient for both North and South Sudan who depend on Oil for revenue. Image from Stratfor.

However, ethnic conflict is only one factor to the Sudan-South Sudan tensions. International attention has turned toward the North where a combination of US-backed economic sanctions, domestic political unrest, and the Southern independence movement have eviscerated Sudan’s economy. President Omar al-Bashir has called for widespread economic restructuring to combat inflation. In October, inflation reached 40 percent and local currency has lost more than 50 percent of its value on the black market over the last two years. Particularly devastating, Sudan lost almost 75 percent of the region’s oil and billions of dollars in export earnings to the South following independence. Although a majority of the regions oil fields are found in the South, pipelines run north, which gives Sudan some revenue from the oil fields. For Sudan, maintaining control of the Abyei and the Muglad Basin means controlling the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline. The pipe, which starts in the Unity and Heglig oil fields is key to both regions, and both countries need each other in order to stay solvent—the South has the crude oil, the North the means of export.

The likelihood for renewed conflict is increasing. It is likely that with Sudan threatening to block exports from the Unity oil field, disputes over oil exports are likely to aggravate President al-Bashir who has demonstrated a proclivity toward military aggression. Also, it is probable that Misseriyan nomads will push back violently against the increasingly powerful Ngok Dinka. This combination of intense economic pressure and ethnic tensions exacerbated by South Sudan’s supported referendum could lead to severe consequences.  Zacharia Akol, analyst for the Sudd Institute, noted that the referendum is likely to have a singular result: “Violence. Remember we are talking about an area that has been attacked in the recent past by Sudan twice, in 2008 and in 2011.”

It is critical that the United States push for a lasting resolution to prevent regional war stemming from renewed North-South aggression. It is in the security interest of the United States to offer resources and technical capacity to AU/UN-led negotiations and deploying additional diplomatic capacity in tandem with economic pressure to ensure that Abyei does not devolve into regional conflict.

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