As international mediators push Sudan’s presidency toward a political agreement on Abyei in the hopes of giving the region a chance at peace, a flurry of activity is also taking place on the ground. Actors in the region are preparing for the looming Jan. 9 deadline even as the possibility of a referendum slips away – though some seemingly in anticipation of a confrontation.
Recent reports from both Africa Confidential and Small Arms Survey indicate a build-up of armed actors in and around Abyei, a region that under the 2005 peace agreement is supposed to be free of both the northern and southern armies – known as SAF and SPLA, respectively. Northern forces have reportedly gathered around Diffra, Abyei’s single – and barely productive – oil field, though it is unclear whether those forces are in Abyei proper. Citing senior SPLM officials, Small Arms Survey reported that four battalions of the northern army have been deployed while according to Africa Confidential, Misseriya militias (believed by some to be armed by Khartoum) have gathered in and around the area. Diffra is a town in northern Abyei that is largely inhabited by Misseriya. The UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan is charged with monitoring military movements and maintains a team site outside of Diffra, but access to the area is often challenging.
The southern army, too, has reportedly increased its presence in Abyei by having SPLA soldiers enter the area as members of the joint North-South Abyei police unit and has maintained a presence in Abyei’s southeast corner. Small Arms Survey indicated that UNMIS has also found “some evidence” that the southern army is arming the population. According to Africa Confidential, both armies recently withdrew from Abyei, though plenty of armed civilians likely remain.
An upsurge in human traffic during this dry season may further heighten the possibility for localized violence. Displaced Abyei residents are beginning to return home en masse in anticipation of the vote in January. Three thousand residents already returned in the first half of the year and over a thousand recently began the trek back from Khartoum – a thousand of a tremendous 36,000 displaced residents that local authorities said have registered to return. The effect of these movements, and the increase in population in and around the militarized border area is unpredictable. Africa Confidential reported that Abyei youth returning from Khartoum were beaten at a SAF checkpoint along the way, even citing one incident of rape.
Misseriya migrations have also begun, a seasonal exercise that has in the past raised tensions along the North-South border. Last season, the inability of southern politicians, the southern army, and Misseriya representatives to implement a cross-border agreement led to several clashes between the Misseriya and the southern army. This season, no agreement over the conditions of passage has emerged between either the Misseriya and officials representing the affected border states, or between the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka, who traditionally convene a reconciliation conference in advance of migrations. The former indicates that Misseriya will once more have difficulty crossing into the South, leading to pressures in the Abyei area and potential clashes around the border. The latter is a concerning sign of how strained relations between the two communities – who have long co-existed peacefully – have become.
Tensions have escalated in recent months and the potential for conflict in Abyei will remain high, especially as the region’s fate remains uncertain for the affected communities on the ground. These developments are part and parcel of the perennially unpredictable Abyei landscape and require vigilance from international observers and from Sudanese parties in North and South, who continuously and publicly vow to avoid resorting to violence at this fragile time. They are also a reminder of the variety and number of spoilers that will continue to threaten the Abyei region, even should talks succeed. Negotiations between Presidents Bashir, and Vice Presidents Taha and Kiir are set to resume shortly, after the long-postponed IGAD meeting on Sudan takes place in Addis Ababa tomorrow.