Implications of the Abyei Dispute in the Sudan

In May, the United Nations announced that although international peacekeepers would remain in the disputed Abyei region in the Sudan, troop numbers would decrease from about 4,800 to less than 4,500. The peacekeeping mission, known as the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA) was adopted in June of 2011 after the outbreak of violence in the border town between Sudan and South Sudan. The mission was originally meant to be short-term but instead has been extended into its seventh year by unanimous UN Security Council support.

Abyei is a small, strategically important region and a major source of conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. Simultaneous to South Sudan’s independence referendum in 2011, a second referendum for residents of Abyei was set to occur to decide on remaining with Sudan or joining South Sudan. Due to ongoing violence and the threat of civil war, the referendum never took place, and the UN set up a neutral administrative zone instead, patrolled by mostly Ethiopian soldiers.

The current conflict in Abyei is motivated by a combination of ethnic, religious, political, and economic issues. Abyei’s two main tribes, the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya tribe have long been embroiled in conflict. Frequently in the past, the Dinka, who are mostly Christian, have been subjected to violent raids and “Islamicization campaigns” from Misseriya and other militias at the direction of Sudan’s government in Khartoum.

After an invasion by Sudanese militias, including the Misseriya, in 2011, 110,000 Dinka civilians were displaced from their native lands. In 2013, Misseriya tribe members killed Dinka chief Kuol Deng Kuol, who was returning from a meeting with the Sudanese government as part of UN delegation.

Voting rights are another significant source of the conflict. The Misseriya are nomadic and have demanded to participate in the referendum for Abyei’s future. They travel freely to the region from the north due to its rich, arable grazing land. Because they spend so much time in Abyei, the Misseriya feel they deserve a right to vote in the referendum.

The Misseriya are an important constituency to the Sudanese government in the north, so leaders in Khartoum have pushed to include the Misseriya in any referendum. The Dinka have long desired to join South Sudan, though their attempts at holding a referendum accepted by all parties have been unsuccessful.

In addition to high-quality farming and grazing land, Abyei is also a source of oil. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 devastated Sudan’s economy when much of its oil revenue went to the South. This raises the importance of Abyei to both countries. Under the status quo, Sudan’s government in Khartoum profits from Abyei’s oil production. In the event of Abyei joining South Sudan, Sudan loses Abyei as a source of revenue unless the two make a deal to share oil profits.

Despite the two governments’ inability to reach a consensus over the disputed territory, the Dinka and Misseriya tribes signed a peace agreement in March of 2018. The peace agreement between these two tribes is an important step in attaining peace between Sudan and South Sudan. This agreement demonstrates the ability of the tribes to take up matters for themselves instead of relying on government action to negotiate peace.

Although an important step, the tribes’ peace deal is far from a permanent solution. Despite the tribal agreement, Misseriya tribesmen loyal to Sudan routinely harass Dinka families outside of the UN patrolled areas. If the UN leaves before a deal is struck between the two countries, there is a significant risk of Sudanese forces further encroaching into Abyei to force Dinka families out and prevent them from claiming the territory.

Ultimately, the situation in Abyei will not be resolved until both the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments reach an agreement over the territory. Taking control of Abyei would boost Sudan’s revenue and appease the Misseriya constituency by allowing them grazing access for their livestock.

For Sudan the current situation is just as beneficial as an actual resolution to the conflict because the Sudanese government is currently drawing revenues from Abyei’s oil and the Misseriya already enjoy unrestricted access to Abyei. The South Sudanese also want to gain revenue from the oil fields, but their biggest concern in Abyei is providing protection for the Dinka tribes, who ethnically identify with South Sudan and have long suffered at the hands of the Misseriya. Considering the ongoing civil war raging in South Sudan, a future resolution over this dispute seems unlikely.

For the U.S. and international community, it is clear the two governments will be unable to attain peace themselves anytime soon. The U.S. has already invested billions of dollars of aid to end the civil war in South Sudan and will continue to do so.

China is expected to play a big role in this affair too, though Chinese involvement in Sudan is more discreet. Like the U.S., China has supported South Sudan and desires to see a lasting, peaceful resolution, though Chinese officials haven’t publicly declared an agenda other than seeing an end to the conflict. Privately, China is interested in protecting its oil interests in South Sudan, using its business relationship as political leverage to end the conflict.

Fundamentally, each member of the UN Security Council agrees that the conflict must end on terms acceptable to locals, prompting the Council to work closely with the African Union, and especially with Sudan’s neighbor, Ethiopia. The Council will vote again in November whether to extend the UNIFSA mission. UNIFSA is expected to be extended with further troop reductions.

In recent days, the UN has taken additional steps to accelerate the peace process. If the two countries continue failing to resolve the dispute, the international community will have little choice but to take a more involved role in pushing both sides to the negotiating table. The UN’s reduction in peacekeeping forces indicates international readiness to see a consensus, but Sudan and South Sudan don’t appear to have reached that point.