The spirit of Abyei Paradise

By Modem Lawson-Betum

International civil servants once regarded their field duty station – the small 10,546 square kilometers sized Abyei Area on the border between Sudan and South Sudan – as the “Abyei Paradise”, meaning a nice place to live and work in. Contemporary scholars, political observers and analysts, lecturers, opinion leaders, and students anxious to discover the intricacies of Africa’s conflict prevention, management and resolution history would undoubtedly be amazed by the Abyei Area, which looks like a tiny and prettily designed packing box that stands as one of the most recent among the nearly fifty territorial disputes registered in Africa since the 1960s era of independence. Abyei is a border area, which remains one of the major post-South Sudan independence issues.

The Abyei area was granted a “special administrative status” by the 2004 Protocol on the Resolution of the Abyei Conflict (Abyei Protocol) in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended what is generally considered the second Sudanese civil war. The Abyei Area had previously been considered part of the larger Abyei District within the now-abolished state of West Kordofan. The Abyei Protocol declared the Abyei Area, on an interim basis, to be simultaneously part of the states of South Kordofan (Sudan) and Northern Bahr el Ghazal (South Sudan).

Sustained efforts by the two parties, with support from key international players, to find a suitable settlement of the Abyei dispute, culminated in the Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) determining the boundaries of the Abyei Area (in its 14 July 2005 report), and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rendering on 22 July 2009 a final binding decision on the validity of the boundaries drawn by the ABC. In the same vein, the 20 June 2011 Agreement signed between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) provided for temporary arrangements for the administration and security of the Abyei Area until the two parties can reach a settlement on its final status.  Subsequently, a UN peace mission named “United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei” (UNISFA) was established under Security Council resolution 1990 of 27 June 2011 with the ultimate goal of assisting the parties in implementing the 20 June 2011 Agreement.

The Abyei Area is also commonly known as one of the most oil-rich areas in Sudan, and for hosting grazing lands and water resources that are essential for the livelihoods of pastoralists. Some political analysts have concluded that assuming control of such resources could serve two main purposes: boosting national socio-economic development, and securing popular support by asserting political patriotism.

Persistent differences between Khartoum and Juba over the concrete modalities for implementing the series of security and political arrangements concluded on Abyei continued to hamper efforts towards finding a negotiated solution to the final status of the area.  Moving the Abyei peace process forward would require from the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan to adopt the following bold steps. i) Finding a compromise formula on the composition of the civil administrations provided for in the 20 June 2011 Agreement, including the Abyei Police Service whose size, format, concept of operations and main functions should also be agreed upon; ii) initiating the holding of peaceful coexistence conferences aiming at preserving and consolidating the longstanding harmony between the local communities; iii) reviewing and formally endorsing the September 2012 proposal by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) calling for a referendum to determine the final status of the Abyei area, continued rights for local Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities, migratory rights for the Misseriya and other pastoralists, and economic development and revenue sharing for Abyei and surrounding communities. Obviously, should the parties agree on holding the proposed referendum, they would have to address the main challenges involved, including determining who would be eligible to vote, what mechanism should be put in place to organize and supervise the referendum and how best to accommodate the interests and concerns of the losers of the referendum.

Meanwhile, the 12 April 2013 summit meeting in Juba, between President Omer Hassan Al-Bashir of Sudan and President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan has brought about rays of hope for resolving peacefully the dispute over the status of the Abyei area even in the face of rising security challenges. Significant in this regard was the 12 April Joint Communiqué issued by the two Presidents “affirming their commitment to implement the cooperation agreements signed in Addis Ababa on September 27th, 2012, honestly to the letter and with the same constructive spirit prevailing between the two countries”. Equally significant was the Sudanese and South Sudanese leaders’ decision “to continue their efforts to resolve the Abyei issue in accordance with the implementation Matrix for the 9 cooperation agreements signed between the two countries”.

As a major departure from the belligerent rhetoric and posturing that preceded and followed the armed border conflict that had engulfed Sudan and South Sudan in March-April 2012, the positive outcome of the Juba Summit meeting is expected to build on the expressed readiness of President Al-Bashir and President Salva Kiir “to accelerate their efforts to enhance the relations between Sudan and South Sudan in all fields of cooperation”. The invitation extended by President Al-Bashir to President Salva Kiir to pay a reciprocal visit to Khartoum augurs well for reinforcing good neighborly relations.

On another positive note, the emerging rapprochement between Khartoum and Juba is likely to be strengthened by President Salva Kiir’s announcement on the same day, 12 April that his party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) was disengaging from the SPLM North, (a rebel movement known for fighting against Sudan in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and seeking to unseat its regime). From all indications, the rapprochement between Khartoum and Juba would also serve the purpose of cementing economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries, which in turn would benefit the well being of the people of Sudan and South Sudan.

In order for the Sudanese and South Sudanese Presidents’ renewed commitment to dialogue, communication and cooperation to translate into tangible steps, especially with regard to the Abyei area, it is essential that the African Union, the United Nations and the wider international community find innovative ways of assisting the parties in reaching a compromise formula for the establishment of the Abyei civil administrations provided for in 20 June 2011 Agreement, including the Abyei Police Service. Similarly, the international community should assist the parties in creating all necessary conditions for the restoration of normal life for the local communities, the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya. Such assistance should focus on facilitating the resettlement and rehabilitation of returnees, and the promotion of socio-economic and infrastructure development.

It is worth noting that the African Union, through its High-Level Implementation Panel chaired by former President Thabo Mbeki, continued to play a vital role in helping Sudan and South Sudan to implement the series of security and political arrangements concerning the Abyei area. Similarly, the 4,200 strong United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), which is made up of dedicated Ethiopian military personnel, has proved to be an effective and well performing instrument and asset for helping Sudan and South Sudan restore genuine and lasting peace, security and stability to the Abyei area. In order to best build on their commendable achievements, the African Union and the UN should also find innovative ways of supporting and facilitating the concrete implementation of the spirit of constructive dialogue and multifaceted cooperation pledged by the Sudanese and South Sudanese leaders.

A visible illustration of the UN’s contribution to restoring peace, security and stability and to reinforcing good neighborly relations between Sudan and South Sudan is the ongoing conduct of border verification and monitoring activities involving the UN, Sudan and South Sudan monitors within the framework of the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM) established under UN Security Council resolution 2024 of 14 December 2011

An ultimate return of normalcy to the Abyei area would surely convince those dedicated international civil servants who have served in Abyei and gone that the spirit of “Abyei Paradise” has survived the challenges of time and will endure over and over.

[Mr. Lawson-Betum was until recently a Senior Political Affairs Officer in the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, New York]

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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