Abyei shudders in conflict each day, who is to blame?

Abyei shudders in conflict each day, who is to blame?
UN peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei (File Photo)

Abyei, a 10,000-square-kilometre Abyei region, has long been contested by both Sudan and South Sudan. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 did not improve the already bad situation, punctuated by armed conflicts, the result being the loss of lives and property.

 Abyei is prized by both Sudan and South Sudan for its fertile land and oil reserves. Under the terms of the Abyei Protocol, the Abyei Area was considered, on an interim basis, to be simultaneously part of both the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan, effectively a condominium.

Despite the region being under U.N. administration, it has witnessed frequent clashes between members of the Ng’ok Dinka ethnic group and the Misseriya community, often over access to grazing land and water points.

Mid this month, at least 41 civilians have been killed, 13 wounded, and 1,913 herds of cattle raided on three occasions in fresh attacks alleged to have been initiated by the Misseriya Militia. Earlier in February, over 20 Ngok Dinka were also killed in clashes between the Twic and Ngok communities in Aneet, Agok, and surrounding.

While the final status of Abyei still remains unresolved, an alarming recent flare-up of violence killing civilians and peacekeepers threatens the apparent calm between Sudan and South Sudan, speakers told the UN Security Council on Friday, as that body also looked towards a possible future renewal of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) mandate.

UNISFA has of late been criticised for not being efficient to quash the flare of violence that took place in the region.

South Sudan’s representative, Bona Malual said the recent attacks can directly be linked to the security vacuum created by the abrupt departure of Ethiopian forces, emphasising that the Misseriya are keen to exploit it.  

Early January this year, the United Nations agreed to replace thousands of Ethiopian forces within the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) with other UN forces.

This came after the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, received a phone call from Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN Undersecretary-General for Peace Operations, in which the two sides discussed arrangements for replacing the Ethiopian forces upon Sudan’s request, the sovereign council said in the statement.

Earlier, Sudan through the Minister of Foreign Affairs Maryam El Sadig El Mahdi, demanded for the replacement of the Ethiopian forces within the UNISFA in the wake of a border dispute with Ethiopia.

UNISFA was established in 2011 by the UN Security Council to monitor the Abyei border. It is mainly composed of Ethiopian forces of around 4,200 troops and 50 police personnel. Later, the size of the forces was increased to 5,326, all of whom were from Ethiopia.

Sudan-Ethiopia relations have been strained by rising tensions, including deadly skirmishes, along the border between the two countries since September 2020.

He further stated that the Security Council, the African Union and IGAD must engage the parties in finalising Abyei’s status to create the necessary security and improved relations for which the Ngok Dinka have been longing.

While reconciliation is an important aspect of humanity, he cautioned it must be genuine, address core issues and ultimately aim to reach a lasting solution between parties and communities.  He warned, however, that reconciliation is difficult to realise in the face of continuous attacks, loss of life, displacement and looting without accountability for the perpetrators thereof.  As such, South Sudan questions what the Council means when it repeatedly calls for reconciliation, he said.

Trust lacking

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, briefed the Council by video teleconference, stating that whereas the overall security situation in the Abyei Administrative Area is calm, the deficit of trust between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka communities remains of great concern.

 He cautioned that there has been no progress on the deployment of the three formed police units mandated by the Council, with the humanitarian situation having deteriorated since he last briefed members.  Humanitarian workers went from servicing 103,000 vulnerable people to a stunning 240,000, with 26 people killed and many more injured in violence between different Dinka communities in February and March.  Two humanitarian workers also lost their lives, he noted.

Sudan’s representative, Ammar Mohammed Mahmoud Mohammed, affirmed Sudan’s commitment to accelerating an agreement on Abyei’s final status while expressing concern over the death of a peacekeeper that led to the withdrawal of teams working for the Joint Border and Verification Monitoring Mechanism. 

Mahmoud called for the easing of tensions without unilateral actions that could jeopardise UNISFA’s activities, stating that Abyei must be free of any armed presence. He added that it is, therefore, unfortunate that South Sudanese armed forces are within the buffer zone.

Sudan and South Sudan both emphasise the need to scale up humanitarian assistance to the displaced and vulnerable communities, and both acknowledge the need for peace in their territories and in the region, which will enable them to foster cooperation through neighbourly relations. 

Bona Malual called on the Security Council, the African Union and IGAD to engage the parties in finalising Abyei’s status, stating that such a step will create the necessary security and improved relations for which the Ngok Dinka have been longing.

As part of the Khartoum-Juba rapprochement, the visit to the Sudanese capital by the advisor to the President of South Sudan in March included discussions on Sudan’s proposal for joint administration of Abyei, he said, adding that Khartoum awaits a response from Juba.

Recalling a meeting in Juba of the Joint Security and Political Mechanism in September 2021, Sudan stated that it is dedicated to accelerating an agreement on Abyei’s final status. 

Sudan’s government representative welcomed UNISFA’s implementation of 16 quick-impact projects, as well as the Secretary-General’s recommendation to renew its mandate for an additional six months.