Pushing for Progress on Abyei

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This blogpost is part two of a two-part blog series on the ongoing tensions in Abyei. The blogposts were authored by a guest blogger whose name has been withheld for security reasons. Click here to read part one: Abyei: Simmering Tensions Show No Signs of Abating.

The six years following the signing of the June 2011 Agreement on Temporary Arrangements for the Administration and Security of the Abyei Area have proved the inability, or perhaps the unwillingness, of Sudan and South Sudan to form a joint administration in Abyei and conduct the Abyei referendum. The undeniable reality is that evolving dynamics in Abyei, as well as in the two countries, make it very difficult to form a joint administration in the region today. But this should not be a reason to hold civilian populations in Abyei hostage to political disagreements that could drag on for many more years.

With the ongoing failure of both countries to form a joint administration, it is important to take into consideration the human suffering this causes in Abyei. The Ngok Dinka, who have historically shouldered a heavy burden as a result of prolonged displacement and the devastation of their livelihoods and security, deserve recognition of their grievances. It is therefore important to recognize the need for the Ngok Dinka to have a separate, internationally-recognized, temporary administrative structure in Abyei to help them with the provision of security and delivery of services. Another similar administration should also be established for the Misseriya to administer their affairs independently in their villages.

On the ground, Sudan and South Sudan maintain de facto administrative control over portions of the area. The Government of Sudan still controls the northern part of Abyei area, with Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) maintaining a presence around the Diffra oil fields. Today, all administrative functions related to villages in northern Abyei area are already being run by the West Kordofan town of El-Muglad. South Sudan, on the other hand, controls Abyei town as well as many villages about 30 kilometers north, west, and east of Abyei town. In case of the continued failure of both countries to form a joint administration, this de facto control should be recognized immediately in the form of temporary administrative structures.

Despite the existence of such de facto administrative structures, both Sudan and South Sudan continue to dispute the legitimacy of the other country’s control. The result is that the international community, including the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), has not been able to officially recognize these structures and work with them in the delivery of security and services. Full recognition of the existing administrative structures, their functions, and their respective areas of control inside Abyei area should be agreed by the two countries.

In support of the formation of temporary administrative structures for the Ngok Dinka, a proposal was submitted to the U.N. Security Council on November 25, 2013 by the then-Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations, Ambassador Francis Deng. In light of the continued failure to form a joint administration in Abyei, this proposal called for the creation of a separate temporary administrative status for Ngok Dinka people independent from the Missiriya. Ambassador Deng’s proposal was a call for the international community to recognize the legitimate quest of the Ngok Dinka to have a separate administration status in Abyei.

If such a new compromise on Abyei is to be realized, the full support of the international community, especially the African Union (AU), will be needed in any upcoming negotiations. The AU and its mediation mechanism on Sudan and South Sudan, the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), as well as members of the Troika (Norway, United Kingdom, and United States), would need to make public their support for such a temporary compromise and call the two countries to adopt it as a new position if they continue to fail in forming a joint administration and in the conduct of the Abyei referendum.

The AUHIP should consider taking a more forward-leaning stance in urging the two countries to adopt this position. The AUHIP’s failure to rally international support to pressure Sudan into accepting a previous AU proposal on Abyei has led to confusion.

The Troika have an important role to play in pushing the two countries toward a political settlement on Abyei. The United States was the driving force behind the 2004 Abyei Protocol and should be central in pressuring the two countries to adopt a clear way forward. Pending final settlement, the United States should also consider putting its weight behind supporting temporary administrative structures for the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya to enable delivery of services and the establishment of law enforcement institutions to complement UNISFA’s mandate.

The fact on the ground is that the Misseriya continue to enjoy their full political rights in Western Kordofan State in Sudan. The Ngok Dinka populations, however, continue to endure displacement and are without a recognized administration. Their legitimate quest for an internationally-recognized referendum continues but is no closer to reality. This will continue to feed the sense of injustice among the Ngok Dinka, and may frustrate future political processes concerning Abyei.

Finally, the AU should stop delaying the release of its investigation into the killing of the Ngok Dinka paramount leader, Chief Kuol Deng Kuol. This report is critical to helping local communities address security challenges in a clear and honest manner. The report can be the start of a justice and healing process. Once released, both countries should agree on mechanisms to bring those responsible for this crime to justice. An open and transparent trial will restore a sense of justice and supremacy of rule of law and order in the region.

While relations between Sudan and South Sudan are far from perfect, both countries can capitalize on any new talks on Abyei to rebuild trust. With Abyei being one of the most divisive topics in relations between Juba and Khartoum, any new negotiations are an opportunity to help lift some pressure off of both countries. As this happens, the full involvement of the international community is vital.

This is part two of a two-part blog series on the ongoing tensions in Abyei. Click here to read part one: Abyei: Simmering Tensions Show No Signs of Abating.