Khartoum’s Seizure of Disputed Abyei District Could Launch New War between North and South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

May 26, 2011

Last weekend’s military occupation of the disputed Abyei district by the Northern Sudanese Army is the latest step in a series of armed clashes in the area that threaten to reignite hostilities between North and South Sudan in the lead-up to South Sudan’s official declaration of independence on July 9.

Abyei 2
Lying on the border of South Kordofan province (part of North Sudan) and Bahr al-Ghazal (part of South Sudan), the oil rich Abyei district is home to the Ngok Dinka and, for part of the year at least, the Arab Missiriya. The Ngok Dinka are well represented in the highest levels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Abyei lies atop the highly productive Muglad Basin, though some believe intensive production in this area since the 1990s has largely depleted the reserves in this area. Several important pipelines from other oil-producing regions run through Abyei.

Both North and South Sudan were to have withdrawn military forces from Abyei by May 21, except for a small joint force that would continue to provide security. Yet, a battalion of roughly 200 Northern troops was attacked seven kilometers south of Abyei’s northern border during their withdrawal on May 19, leaving 22 soldiers dead and many more missing. The Northern battalion was being escorted by United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) units, which also came under attack. Northern military officials immediately blamed SPLA forces for the attack (SUNA, May 20; May 21). Khartoum responded by occupying Abyei with a force that included 15 tanks, while government aircraft were observed bombing a number of villages (Sudan Tribune, May 22). Armed looters swept through Abyei Town on May 23 without opposition, displacing nearly the entire population.

While the identity of the attackers has not been confirmed, the attack on the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) may have been a Southern response to an incident on May 1, when an SPLA unit attempted to prevent an SAF convoy of 200 men and six land-cruisers mounted with machine-guns from entering Abyei. The SAF force opened fire, killing 11 Southern troops and three civilians (AFP, May 3).

An SAF statement accused the SPLM of consolidating its military presence in Abyei since December 2010, in violation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) (Sudan Vision, May 23). Khartoum maintains that Abyei remains part of the North under the constitution until a referendum determines otherwise. At a rally in South Kordofan on April 27, President Omar al-Bashir affirmed this position and expressed his support for the Missiriya tribe (SUNA, April 27).

abyei 1Missiriya Arabs

Armed clashes occurred between the Missiriya and the Ngok Dinka in 2007; and, by 2008, units of the SAF were battling the SPLA for control of Abyei, destroying much of the housing and infrastructure in the process. Arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague reduced the size of the district, giving the productive Heglig oil field to the North and promising a plebiscite on the future status of Abyei to take place simultaneously with a referendum on Southern independence in January 2011.

Inability to agree on whether the pastoral Missirya, who traditionally cross into Abyei with their herds for six to eight months of the year, should have the right to vote in a plebiscite on whether Abyei should join the North or South led to a postponement of the vote. The postponement was followed by renewed clashes between Ngok Dinka and Missiriya in late February/early March (for the background to the conflict in Abyei, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 4, 2010).

UNMIS peacekeepers stationed in the region stopped patrols in Abyei after the SAF ambush, citing the danger presented by the violence (Reuters, May 23). With some 15,000 to 20,000 residents losing their possessions and homes, a spokesman for the Government of the South Sudan (GoSS) appealed to the UN peacekeepers to “come out of their bunkers” (Sudan Tribune, May 23). The UN mission’s mandate expires on July 9, when the South is scheduled to become an independent state in consequence of the January referendum. According to a state minister of the Khartoum government: “UMNIS must pack their belongings because the time has come for their departure” (Sudan Tribune, May 23).

The UNMIS report on the incident failed to assign blame for the ambush, which brought an angry response from Northern officials, who said the UN’s “state of partiality and lack of clarity” would only encourage further violations of the 2005 CPA (Sudan Tribune, May 22).

The United States has warned that a continuing occupation of Abyei by Northern forces would jeopardize ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Khartoum, including removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Reuters, May 23). Northern officials have vowed their troops will remain in place until new security arrangements are made.

This article first appeared in the May 26, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.