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Homepage > Multimedia > Podcasts > Sudan: The Struggle for Abyei

Sudan: The Struggle for Abyei

26 May 2011: Mere weeks before South Sudan is set to become independent, the northern Sudanese army has occupied Abyei. Zach Vertin, Crisis Group's Horn of Africa analyst, explains what sparked the conflict and how to resolve it.

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The Sudanese territory of Abyei has been thrust into the spotlight again after the northern Sudanese army occupied it this weekend, forcing thousands of residents to flee—this mere weeks before the south is poised to become independent, splitting Africa's largest country in two. Abyei, a hotly contested, but sparsely populated territory about the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, sits along Sudan's north-south border. Caught between the north and south both ethnically and politically, Abyei is home to the Ngok Dinka, who are closely allied with the south, and Misseriya nomads, who migrate through the territory to graze their cattle during the dry season.

Zach, what exactly happened, and what's at stake?

The details are still coming out. Not everything is entirely clear, but it seems as if an incident last week in which southern security elements appear to have attacked a convoy of northern armed forces began this conflict. That attack was unwarranted, but ultimately gave the North enough of pretext on which to advance, take Abyei, in breach of existing agreements, and assert control of the territory ahead of the 9th of July, when South Sudan is due to become independent.

And what about the conflict? Oil is a primary revenue source for both sides and thus a highly contentious issue, but is the battle for Abyei indeed a fight over oil?

Oil is indeed a major issue in Sudan. It represents the biggest portions of the economies in both north and south. But despite popular misperception, in fact the battle for Abyei is not about oil. Current output there represents just under a few percent of Sudan’s total production, so in fact it’s not the primary driver of conflict.

And so what is the driver of this conflict?

The fundamental dispute itself involves the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities and is about land, grazing rights, access to water, and security for both the nomadic and host communities. That said, over the course of the last few years, the dispute has unfortunately assumed a political character that extends far beyond Abyei. It has become part of a high-stakes political game between north and south. In fact, in some cases it has been used as a bargaining chip.

Is this a clear move toward war?

Actually, despite dangerously high rhetoric over the course of the last year, both north and south have calculated that the cost of return to war outweighed any potential gains. I think that equation holds true today, though it is certainly being tested. I think the move by Khartoum is far more than a simple maneuver to new war. The capture of Abyei, I think, is aimed at influencing negotiations over the future status of the territory, but also strengthening its hand at the negotiating table. Teams from north and south continue the negotiations toward a constructive relationship beyond July. This includes future arrangements on oil sharing, debt, currency, security, citizenship, etc., as well as their shared north-south border. A deal has yet to be hammered out.

Was this foreseeable or a surprise?

I think, with no feasible settlement on the horizon and southern independence fast approaching, I think both sides have sought to assert control over the territory, both in public rhetoric, later in the draft constitution of South Sudan and in the constitution of the north, most worryingly through aggressive posturing on the ground in and around Abyei. The last few weeks have involved intense engagement from officials from the United States, the United Nations, and the African Union that had helped prevent the situation from boiling over. But again, that clash last week sparked this—what I would agree is a disproportionate—response from Khartoum’s army, and the consequences are thus far untold.

Do you think the south will respond militarily, and if so, could the situation descend into renewed civil war?

Juba’s in a very difficult position now. While it has a strong connection to Abyei and is unlikely to give up the fight for Abyei, remember this comes just six weeks prior to South Sudan’s independence and Juba is thus very hesitant to engage militarily or do anything else that might threaten its independence in July and the international recognition that’s required.

What should happen to diffuse the conflict?

I think, first and foremost, the immediate withdrawal of the north's armed forces is critical if there is to be any chance for a sustainable solution in the territory itself, if negotiations on the post-referendum agenda are to move forward, but also to prevent what is a very risky situation. Given the proximity of forces and the emotions that are running high, this could very much escalate above and beyond Abyei and risk both new war and threaten southern Sudan’s long-awaited independence. So I think that immediate withdrawal is necessary to move forward on those fronts, but also I think Khartoum has to consider its strategy in this regard. It certainly has moved to try and strengthen its negotiating hand, but the invasion may have negative consequences for its normalization, both with the United States and with the international community more broadly. And if these kind of moves continue, I think that could very much put that at a threat and push Khartoum further down the road of international isolation, and thus unduly punish ordinary northern citizens as well.

What effect will this have on the larger process of southern secession?

Well, at this stage, I don’t think and I hope it doesn’t effect, negatively effect, Southern secession. I think that’s why we’re seeing, again, restraint being exercised thus far from Juba. Certainly, I think, if this does descend into greater conflict, Khartoum may try to undermine or derail Southern independence. But at this stage, I think that should move ahead as planned and I certainly think that remains Juba’s top priority.


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