The northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) invaded the highly contested territory of Abyei on May 21, threatening to undo the peace agreement between North Sudan and South Sudan. Abyei, a formerly oil-rich region, straddles the border between the north and south. With both sides refusing to back down from their claims to the area, only a local solution with international help can keep them from returning to civil war.
There are multiple reasons as to why both sides are fighting over Abyei, including tribal divisions, oil claims, and border questions.
First, the region is divided between the southern tribe Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya, a nomadic tribe that supported the north during the civil war. This division, and the question of whether the Misseriya can vote in Abyei, remains unresolved.
Tribal affiliation is another factor in the conflict. Several leading figures in the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), South Sudan’s leading party, hail from the Dinka Ngok tribe. They hold significant influence in the SPLM, seen by their success in crafting a South Sudanese transitional constitution that controversially lays claim to Abyei.
Oil also fuels the fight; the region used to produce as much as one-quarter of Sudan’s oil output. Now, it only produces an estimated 1%. However, because the Greater Nile Pipeline runs through Abyei, oil produced in neighboring fields will be affected by whoever controls the pipeline.
Last, the issue of borders remains a simmering topic. The north and south went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to define borders and a final verdict was issued in 2009. While both sides accepted the court’s decision, the Misseriya are unhappy with the outcome because they believe the ruling has disadvantaged them.
Despite these issues, peace is still possible. It goes without saying that the north will have to withdraw its troops from the region; a reported deal that would bring in Ethiopian troops to keep the peace is a start. Moreover, the Ngok Dinka will have to accept the Misseriya’s right to vote, as the latter are unlikely to budge on the issue. An international team (UN, African Union, or Ethiopian) should be placed to ensure the north and south stop arming their respective tribes. Both nations have a long history of arming the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya, while using propaganda to continue conflict.
Peace between the north and south requires a balanced administration that will further delay the referendum on Abyei. Pushing an immediate referendum on whether Abyei will stay in north Sudan or join the south is likely to restart conflict. A referendum, conducted in five years time after the sides are able to work out other pressing issues, would go a long way in easing the immediate pressure in the north to reclaim the territory now.
Most importantly, the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka tribes have to come to a peace agreement. Both tribes have the means to continue conflict, even without support from their respective states. Ending the tribal conflict will require international aid and local development programs. One option is developing projects on the River Kiir. Egypt has already given aid and men to help the south in water projects, and their help in Abyei could be a start in helping to develop the fertile region.
Peace in Abyei is a must. If there is no peace in Abyei, there will likely be no peace between the north and the south.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons