Abyei: A Fleeting Opportunity

UN Peacekeeping in Abyei. Photo Credit: United Nations

By: Hamad Abbas, Columnist

To prevent another deadly conflict and protect foreign policy interests, the United States should exert pressure on Sudan and South Sudan to resolve the territorial dispute of Abyei peacefully. Time is of the essence as the United Nations recently announced its plans to draw down its Interim Security Force for Abyei if progress towards an agreement is not made by this spring. Without a peace plan in place, the absence of UN peacekeepers will likely reignite war between Sudan and South Sudan. If history is an indicator, violent conflict between these two sides will be long and devastating; it is in US interest to avoid such an outcome.

A small contested region on the border separating Sudan and South Sudan, the Abyei Area is of high economic value to both states. The 4,000 square miles of land are home to rich oil reserves and pipeline that grant land-locked South Sudan access to oil shipping routes on the Red Sea. Demographically, the region is made up of two tribes, both of whom lay claim to the land: the Misseriya Arabs aligned with Sudan and the Ngok Dinka aligned with South Sudan. The nomadic Misseriya tribe migrates to Abyei during dry seasons while spending the rest of the year in Sudan, and the Ngok Dinka reside in the area on a permanent basis. [i]

Negotiators of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)–the accord that put an end to 21 years of brutal civil war–were unable to agree on whom to grant control of the Abyei district. Punting on a permanent solution, both parties agreed to the Abyei Protocol which designated the area a temporary special administrative status until a referendum could be held. As the disputed borders increased tension between Sudan and newly established South Sudan, conflict broke out multiple times. Most notably, fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army erupted in 2008, which resulted in widespread displacement when close to 60,000 citizens fled Abyei Area’s capital.[ii] The Abyei Area Referendum was scheduled for January 2011, concurrent with the South Sudan Referendum, but never occurred.[iii] After a diplomatic intervention by the international community, a peace agreement was reached in 2011 that demilitarized Abyei and sent in 4,000 UN-sponsored peacekeepers from Ethiopia. [iv]

The UN and African Union have thus far been unable to broker a lasting solution to Abyei. Recently signaling their pessimism on the issue, the UN announced it will not renew its peacekeeping mandate beyond Spring of 2019 unless considerable progress is made on Abyei.[v] To salvage the existing peace, the United States should take a mediating role in forming a lasting agreement. A timely diplomatic intervention by the U.S. would protect its foreign policy interests by securing global oil supply, and bolstering opportunities for US counterterrorism operations in the region.[vi]

The U.S. is best equipped to lead the negotiations because it possesses a strong interest in stabilizing the region and political leverage over both sides. Sudan has been a strong partner for American intelligence by aiding against the regions’ growing Islamic insurgents, assisting operations in Libya, and hosting a large CIA presence in Khartoum.[vii] Renewed violence between Sudan and South Sudan would divert resources from this cooperative engagement with the U.S. and risk jeopardizing valuable intelligence. Further entangling American interests, is the growing investments in Sudan from China, Russia and Middle Eastern powers who recognize the resource potential and geographic significance of the region.[viii] [ix] Losing political influence in Sudan could render a great loss for America’s global strategic competition.

American leverage over Sudan is centered around removing the country from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This is a top priority for the Bashir government because it views the designation as a stumbling block towards reintegration into the global economy, scaring away foreign investment, and preventing access to financial aid from the International Monetary Fund.[x] Washington has been dangling the possibility of removal to entice Khartoum into improving its behavior, which has resulted in a drastic improvement of Sudanese counterterrorism cooperation.[xi] Likewise, South Sudan is keen to restore its strained relations with the U.S. The country is heavily reliant on assistance from the United States, but its unending civil war has provoked US threats to impose sanctions and cut aid.[xii] As a result, the Trump administration has taken a hard stance towards the South Sudanese leadership.

Acting as mediator, the United States should aim to lower the overall risk for both sides and abate the effects of the referendum vote for the losing side. First, the two sides must agree upon a framework for revenue sharing from the oil fields. The 2005 CPA provides a promising model, which resulted in billions of dollars of Sudanese oil revenue being shared with South Sudan.[xiii] Applying a similar sharing agreement to Abyei is therefore plausible. Secondly, South Sudan should be granted access to shipping ports in the Red Sea via existing pipeline infrastructure, without being subjected to arbitrary price increases by Sudan. Such a price adjustment occurred in 2012, forcing South Sudan to completely halt oil production–its primary source of revenue.[xiv] To enforce this, mediators should push for a mandatory six-month notification of price increases, which would alleviate fears of sudden price hikes in Juba and give both sides ample time to negotiate. Lastly, negotiators should establish the right of Misseriya Arabs to utilize the grazing pastures in Abyei without hinderance from the South Sudanese government or its local allies. In return, the government in Sudan must agree to not enforce its Islamic laws on the Ngok Dinka tribes in the case that Abyei remains part of Sudan.

An agreement brokered by the United States that alleviates key concerns and is secured by international peacekeepers will make the risks of a democratic referendum much more palatable to both sides. The United States, in cooperation with relevant international partners, must take advantage of this fleeting opportunity to fulfill one of the remaining promises made in the American-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement and bring about lasting peace. A successful US-lead negotiation will bring strategic, financial and diplomatic gains for the United States while creating the stability necessary for Sudan and South Sudan to continue rebuilding after years of devastating conflict.


[i] Ashley Hamer, “Abyei, a non-state entity of post-war Sudanese divide,” Al Jazeera, July 1, 2015. Online. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2015/06/abyei-state-entity-post-war-sudanese-divide-150630111015511.html

[ii] Comprehensive Peace Agreement, January 9, 2005. Accessed online: https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/sites/default/files/accords/SudanCPA.pdf

[iii] Human Rights Watch. “Abandoning Abyie- Destruction and Displacement,” hrw.org, May, 2008. Online. https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/07/21/abandoning-abyei/destruction-and-displacement-may-2008

[iv] British Broadcasting Corporation. “Sudan’s Abyei: ‘North-south troop clash’ despite deal,” BBC.com. Online. June 16, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13791073

[v] IRIN News. “Over 4,000 Ethiopian troops for Abyei peace mission,” IRIN News Online, June 27, 2011. Online http://www.irinnews.org/news/2011/06/27/over-4000-ethiopian-troops-abyei-peace-mission

[vi] Sudan Tribune, “Security Council sets conditions for continued support to Sudan-South Sudan border mechanism.” Sudantribune.com, October 11, 2018. Online. http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article66413

[vii] Eric Schew, “Why is the U.S. Military Occupying Bases Across Africa?” JSTOR Daily, April 11, 2018. Online. https://daily.jstor.org/why-is-the-u-s-military-occupying-bases-across-africa/

[viii] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Sudan Becomes US ally in “War On Terror.” The Guardian, April 29, 2005. Online. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/apr/30/sudan.usa

[ix] Justina Crabtree, “China and the Middle East are pouring money into strategic Sudan, but US policy is ‘confused’” CNBC Online, June 18, 2018. Online. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/18/china-middle-east-are-spending-on-sudan-but-us-policy-is-confused.html

[x] Nick Turse, “U.S. Military Says it has a “light footprint” in Africa. These Documents Show a Vast Network of Bases.” The Intercept, December 1, 2018. Online. https://theintercept.com/2018/12/01/u-s-military-says-it-has-a-light-footprint-in-africa-these-documents-show-a-vast-network-of-bases/

[xi] U.S. Department of State. “Sudan Commits To Strengthening Cooperation and Meaningful Reforms,” Press Statement by Heather Nauert, November 7, 2018. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/11/287197.htm#.W-NjKCxmCN8.twitter

[xii] Sudan Tribune, “U.S. Will Not Provide Money to South Sudan’s “bankrupt leaders”: Bolton.” Sudantribune.com, December 13, 2018. Online. http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article66764

[xiii] Madeliene Bunting, “Oil and peace in Sudan,” The Guardian, January 7, 2011. Online. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/07/sudan-referendum-oil-sharing-agreement

[xiv] British Broadcasting Corporation. “South Sudan ‘to complete shutdown’ of oil production,” BBC.com, January, 28, 2012. Online. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-16769935

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