Published January 19, 2011
Abyei, Sudan—In news coverage, the recent violence in Abyei, a contested border region between northern and southern Sudan, has attracted shorthand references to the region as "Sudan's Kashmir." But this is a label Kuol Deng Kuol, paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka, the southern ethnic group that lives in Abyei, strongly rejects. Far from being an intractable problem, Kuol says the international community—in particular, the United States—could "solve Abyei tomorrow" if it would just help implement existing agreements and stop trying to create new ones.
Indeed, there is a lengthy paper trail of directives about the region's future that have never been executed. First is the Abyei Protocol, part of Sudan's 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, which granted residents of Abyei a self-determination referendum that should have been held last week, in tandem with the vote on southern independence. It also established an Abyei Boundaries Commission to define the region's borders—an important endeavor because of the nearby oil fields—and dictated that, until the 2011 referendum, Abyei would fall under its own special administration. But the referendum has never been scheduled, the report by the boundaries commission was rejected by Khartoum, and the special administration never materialized.
Political tensions created by the protocol's failures erupted into violence in 2008. Abyei town, the capital of the region, was razed, and 60,000 people fled for their lives. Soon after, another agreement, the Abyei Roadmap, was reached. Both the northern and southern governments agreed to submit the question of Abyei's geographic boundaries to the Court of Permanent Arbitration in The Hague. The court's "final and binding" judgment said the region should be 40 percent smaller than what the Boundaries Commission had previously recommended, but it broadly affirmed that Abyei was Ngok Dinka land. Initially, both the north and south accepted the ruling, as did the Ngok Dinka. But the Misseriya, a nomadic northern people who migrate to Abyei each year to let their cattle graze, rejected it, believing it made them second-class citizens on what they view as their land.
Then, in 2009, the Sudanese parliament passed the Abyei Referendum Act, specifying that the Ngok Dinka and "other Sudanese residing in Abyei area" would get to participate in the self-determination vote. The task of defining what residency meant—namely, whether the migrating Misseriya should qualify to vote—was delegated to a commission. But the commission was never established, and ongoing disagreements about who should be eligible to cast ballots ensured that the referendum would not happen this month.
Critically, the hand of U.S. diplomacy was directly or indirectly involved in almost all of this tangled history. When the 2005 peace negotiations to end the north-south civil war were at a log-jam over Abyei, it was American negotiators who devised the Abyei Protocol. After the 2008 violence, Richard Williamson, then the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, was heavily involved in formulating the Abyei Roadmap. Now, many in Abyei are frustrated that several high-level, internationally organized agreements have come to naught. Some say they feel abandoned, particularly by the United States. "The Abyei Protocol is an American-made protocol. And now, when it is not implemented, America is nowhere to be seen," says Rou Manyiel, a civil society leader.
In fact, the United States has continued to be involved in Abyei—it's just that those living here do not like that this involvement has taken the form of trying to bring sides to the table yet again, rather than pushing for old agreements to take effect. "[U.S. Envoy Scott] Gration doesn't understand the reality of the situation, and he's not willing to understand," says Deng Arop, the chief administrator of Abyei, referring to Gration's effort to create another agreement last year. Arop, whose keychain sports a photo of President Obama, adds that he is frustrated Washington has tried to get the southern government to renegotiate agreements that have already been made—and he has little time for a high-level African Union Panel, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, tasked with reaching a "lasting solution" on Abyei.
Of course, this is the position of the generally pro-southern population that resides in Abyei. Those in the north, who also have a stake in the Abyei issue, tell the story somewhat differently. In an interview in Khartoum, President Omar Al Bashir's adviser Ghazi Salahuddin also complains about international engagement on Abyei, but not because he thinks existing agreements should be implemented. Rather, he argues, the problem is that "[n]o pressure is being exerted on [the south] to make concessions."
It's clear that the successive failures of past agreements have undermined confidence among the people of Abyei that new discussions will lead to meaningful change or action. What's unclear is whether the United States, along with other international bodies, recognizes this reality. To be sure, Washington cannot force any of the involved parties in Sudan to implement and adhere to past agreements; Salahuddin, for one, represents a stalwart view among many in Khartoum that seems unlikely to change. But Washington can strongly encourage the rival sides to do so. That would certainly be preferable, many in Abyei argue, to supplementing the already lengthy list of documents purporting to settle the region's future.