Abyei Conflict Threatens to Escalate into Full-Scale War
Abyei Conflict Threatens to Escalate into Full-Scale War
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

Abyei Conflict Threatens to Escalate into Full-Scale War

Sudan could be sliding back into a national civil war.

Renewed fighting in the oil-rich Abyei region over the past two weeks has destroyed the town of Abyei and displaced tens of thousands of local Dinka from their homes. The peace deal signed in 2005 - that incredible achievement ending a decades-long north-south civil war - could unravel in Abyei. 
 
The fighting groups, the National Congress Party-controlled Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), are the same parties that signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement three years ago. Starting long before the Darfur crisis ever hit the headlines, this war lasted over 20 years and cost the lives of over two million people. The Agreement created an autonomous southern government that shares a significant portion of the country's wealth. It calls for national elections in 2009, and a southern self-determination referendum in 2011.

The deal has wobbled before, but the bloodshed in Abyei is the heaviest fighting between the two parties since the Agreement was signed. If that deal falls apart, Sudan likely falls apart.

What began over two weeks ago as a small clash between SPLA police and SAF-aligned militia had escalated by 14 May into a full scale military attack by SAF and allied militia on Abyei town. With the army currently in charge of what's left of the wrecked city and digging in, displaced civilians from the town and its surrounding villages are mostly now south of the River Kiir, along with SPLA forces, which are being reinforced.

Abyei remains the most volatile aspect of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It is geographically, ethnically and politically caught between North and South Sudan. The peace agreement included an Abyei Protocol, granting the disputed territory, which has a significant percentage of Sudan's oil reserves, a special administrative status ahead of a 2011 referendum: it can opt between remaining with northern Sudan or joining a potentially independent South Sudan. The parties will need to open a new dialogue on oil issues, including a plan to establish a revenue sharing agreement between North and South beyond 2011, for the contingency that Abyei votes to join the new state in the south. They must also allow the political space for local dialogue between the Ngok Dinka and neighbouring Misseriya Arabs in order to reduce the risk of local conflict between communities and build confidence that all sides will benefit from the peace deal.

However, the situation continues to fester, mainly due to intransigence by the National Congress Party, which has been violating the peace agreement by refusing the "final and binding" ruling of the Abyei Boundary Commission report of July 2005, leaving a dangerous administrative and political vacuum in the region. This vacuum has allowed political tensions to multiply between both national and local actors, leading observers – including Crisis Group – to warn repeatedly about the need for the international community to hold the parties to the terms of the peace agreement and to urgently engage to find a solution in Abyei.

Clearly, if there is no ceasefire and implementation of the agreement, all that is left for Sudan is war. On 18 May, the parties agreed with the UN Mission in Sudan on an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of excess forces from both armies from in and around Abyei. However, the ceasefire failed to hold, and the SAF has failed to re-deploy its 31st Brigade from Abyei as agreed. On 20 May, the SPLA launched a counter-attack on the town, further escalating the situation. The parties have resumed discussions, yet the 31st Brigade continues to sit in burnt and looted remains of Abyei town, thereby undermining the chances of successful dialogue.

Given the fragility of Abyei and in order to avoid a new war in Sudan, the leadership of the Sudan People's Liberation Army based in Juba and the ruling National Congress Party leadership in Khartoum have to pull back their armies and avoid any further escalation. The international community should urgently press Khartoum to withdraw the SAF's 31st Brigade from Abyei, and both parties to abide by the terms of the 18 May ceasefire and subsequent agreements, and offer a beefed up UN force to monitor and patrol the area.

The recent destruction and the preparations for further mass violence should be ringing alarm bells. Now is the time for the international community to preventively engage with the leadership of both parties before the situation gets further out of hand. This requires more than press statements from foreign capitals. Tension in and around Abyei must be immediately de-escalated and such efforts should be led by the UN Mission in Sudan, with the full backing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement's international guarantors. The U.S. bears special responsibility because it brokered the Abyei Protocol in 2004. The Abyei issue should be considered by the UN Security Council as a priority and special effort should be made to visit the area during its upcoming trip to the region.

The Security Council has called for restraint, and UN Mission in Sudan has brought the two warring sides around the table several times. This is not enough. The influential UN member states need to urgently press the leadership on both sides to resolve the Abyei situation. Short term steps should be prioritised that allow the displaced to return home, but ultimately what is needed is an agreement on the borders and the appointment of a local administration as per the peace deal. Sitting by and watching Africa's largest country descend into another devastating civil war cannot be an option.

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.

By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
     
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
     
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
     
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
     
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
     
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.

The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
     
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
     
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
     
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.


Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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