Trouble in Abyei

The United Nations estimated last week that 30,000 to 50,000 residents of the oil rich Abyei region of Sudan fled their homes last week as fighting broke out there. To understand the broader significance of Abyei, I instruct readers to turn to the Enough Campaign, which has called the region “Sudan’s Kashmir,” and warns that Abyei may be the place where the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (which ended the 20 year civil war between the North and South) is dealt its final death knell.

Here’s why. During the CPA negotiations, the north and south were unable to reach an accord on Abyei’s administrative status. The logjam over Abyei threatened to undermine the entire CPA so the United States–which was a key player in overseeing the CPA negotiations–drafted the section on Abyei and pressured both sides to sign.

Though the North in principal agreed to the Abyei protocol, it has obstructed its implementation. In fact, according to Enough Campaign expert and former State Department official Roger Winter, the NCP has refused to implement any of its provisions of the Abyei protocol, leaving the region, “without government, without services, without boundaries, without security, and without a clear future.” To make matters worse, the government of Sudan has mobilized thousands of ethnic-Arab Misseriya men into the Sudanese Army. This is problematic because in late spring (i.e. around now) the Misseriya, who are Arab neighbors of the landed Ngok Dinka, traditionally migrate their herds through Ngok Dinka territory in and around Abyei.

So this is what is behind the recent outbreak of violence there. But it is also part of a larger strategy in which Khartoum is seeking to obstruct and delay the critical national elections (which were called for under the CPA to be held in 2009).

These elections, if held, may tip the political balance of power in Khartoum away from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The NCP is growing increasingly unpopular nationally and there is a distinct possibility that should these elections be conducted freely and fairly, the NCP will no longer dominate the government. In fact, there is a strong chance that the southern rebel movement may actually win these elections, and quite possibly form a ruling parliamentary coalition that excludes the NCP. So, to avoid that outcome, the NCP is trying to obstruct these elections by playing tribal groups against each other in order to shape the demographic makeup of the various administrative regions of Sudan to its electoral advantage. The NCP hopes to delay these elections, or forge temporary self-serving alliances to determine its outcome.

The flare up in Abyei is a manifestation of that strategy. How the international community responds will pretty much determine whether or not peace and the democratic transition of Sudan can be achieved. It may seem like an obscure side-note to the unfolding tragedy in Darfur, but resolving Abyei is quite central to the prospects of peace for the whole country.