The Abyei Calculus and the Need for SAF Withdrawal
The Abyei Calculus and the Need for SAF Withdrawal
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

The Abyei Calculus and the Need for SAF Withdrawal

Abyei is burning, again. After months of rising tensions and international attempts to diffuse a crisis between political factions and armies from Sudan’s North and South, Khartoum’s armed forces recently launched a combined ground and air offensive on the hotly disputed region, displaced tens of thousands, and dissolved the local government. Three weeks on, reports of looting and burning continue while the military remains as an occupying force. Their immediate withdrawal is critical if there is to be any chance for a sustainable solution in the troubled territory itself, but also to prevent Africa’s largest country from plunging back into war and spoiling South Sudan’s long awaited independence—now just one month away.

Straddling Sudan’s contested North-South border, sparsely populated Abyei is roughly the size of Connecticut; and despite popular misperception, its current value in terms of oil production is negligible and thus not the primary driver of conflict. Abyei has long been geographically, ethnically, and politically caught between North and South; the dispute at its core pits southern-aligned Ngok Dinka communities who reside in the area against nomadic Misseriya Arabs who migrate through the territory to graze huge cattle herds during the dry season.

Though beset by occasional conflict, the two communities lived in relative peace — even cooperated and intermarried — for generations. But the area has been a flashpoint in recent years, and as southern independence and the partition of the country became increasingly certain, uncertainty over the territory’s own future (whether part of North or South) stoked existential fears among its communities. Meanwhile, high stakes politics between elites in Khartoum and Juba meant the dispute assumed a character and a complexity far removed from this rural tract of land. Growing antagonism at the national level in turn served to harden positions on the ground, and the die of new conflict was all but cast.

With no feasible settlement on the horizon and Southern independence fast approaching, the two sides have sought to assert control of the territory — both in public rhetoric and, more tangibly, through aggressive posturing on the ground. Weeks of intense engagement from U.S., United Nations, and African Union officials had helped prevent the situation from boiling over, but a recent clash initiated by Southern forces sparked a disproportionate response from Khartoum’s army, and untold consequences.

That unwarranted attack gave the North’s military enough of a pretext on which to advance, take Abyei in breach of existing agreements, and assert control of the territory ahead of 9 July. But the maneuver is far more than a simple move to new war. In fact, despite dangerous rhetoric over the course of the last year, both North and South calculated that the cost of a return to war outweighed any potential gains—an equation that holds true, albeit tenuously, today.

Thus, Khartoum’s capture of Abyei — and aggressive posturing elsewhere — is aimed at exhibiting strength to domestic constituencies, influencing negotiations over the future status of the territory itself, and strengthening its hand at the negotiating table — where talks between North and South toward future arrangements on oil, debt, currency, security, citizenship, and their shared border have not yet produced a deal. In fact, the two sides’ negotiating teams were trading proposals on economic issues at the time of the invasion. Thus, while Abyei is important to Khartoum and its Misseriya constituency, it is also being used as a bargaining chip.

But the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum — led by ICC-indictee President Omar al-Bashir must also consider the ramifications of its strategy, and its potential effect on the party’s survival and on the normalization of political and economic relations between Sudan — long a global pariah — and the international community. While the regime has rarely shuddered at condemnation from the West, failure to withdraw its forces from Abyei (and continued endangerment of civilians) could send them further down the road of international isolation and unduly punish ordinary northern citizens.

Bashir and his party have suffered politically from the impending partition of the country; they will lose a majority share of the country’s oil — the primary revenue stream — to the South come July, and they will for years be saddled by some or all of the country’s staggering $40 billion debt. That’s not to mention the still unresolved conflict in Darfur, which perpetuates both domestic instability and the ire of the international community.

Eager to see a resolution of Sudan’s conflict and a peaceful referendum on independence, the Obama administration put forward a path to normalization between Khartoum and Washington — two capitals which have long loathed and misunderstood one another. It pledged Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list (Khartoum once hosted Osama Bin Laden), an exchange of ambassadors, support for debt relief, and ultimately a lifting of U.S. economic sanctions.

But among the prerequisites was a peaceful resolution of the Abyei deadlock — something the recent invasion puts at considerable risk. Khartoum does not fully trust the U.S. offers tabled, and knows that stability will continue to be the top American priority in any case. But the White House and the State Department will not entertain all of Khartoum’s excesses, and thus promptly made clear that an overplaying of the regime’s hand could complicate — or even halt — the normalization package. This could well cost Khartoum more in the long run than it stands to gain from its current strategy.

Even more immediate is the possibility of a return to war in Abyei and elsewhere along the North-South border. Khartoum knows that South Sudan prefers not to risk jeopardizing its recognition as an independent country by getting embroiled militarily in Abyei or beyond — and as such may continue to squeeze the South for concessions. But the South’s deep-seated commitment to Abyei should not be underestimated. Nor should the risk of unintended escalation be ignored, particularly in a place where the proximity of ill-disciplined forces and proxy militias and the intensity of emotions make for a dangerous cocktail.

This op-ed was originally posted at International Crisis Group’s On the African Peacebuilding Agenda

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.