Sudan: Abyei at a Dangerous Tipping Point
Sudan: Abyei at a Dangerous Tipping Point
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Statement / Africa

Sudan: Abyei at a Dangerous Tipping Point

Abyei is on the brink of dangerous new conflict that risks escalation of violent confrontation between security forces and other armed proxies from North and South Sudan on the eve of Southern independence. Fighting in recent days follows months of recurring incidents in the hotly contested border territory, underscoring dangerous tensions both on the ground and between leaders of the National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Khartoum and Juba, respectively.

North and South have deployed forces in and around Abyei in breach of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and subsequent security arrangements, as both seek to control the territory come Southern independence on 9 July. While previous clashes have involved civilians, informal militias, and/or police, last week’s involved members of security forces on both sides. Further escalation and additional tit-for-tat deployments risk pushing Abyei beyond the tipping point, endangering lives and the fragile peace in Sudan.

Fighting broke out at a security checkpoint near Todach in the Abyei area on 1 May, after Sudan Armed Forces elements of the Joint Integrated Units (JIU, a largely failed CPA mechanism comprising troops drawn from the Northern and Southern armies) allegedly delivering an authorised weapons shipment were stopped by Southern police forces; fighting erupted leaving some 14 dead. In addition to the immediate threat posed to civilians in and around Abyei, at risk are recent gains of the CPA and the peaceful secession of the South.

Both North and South have unilaterally asserted claims over Abyei in recent weeks, either in public rhetoric or in draft constitutions; Khartoum has even threatened to withhold recognition of Southern independence, underscoring the stakes and the importance of a mutually agreed solution. Further deterioration also threatens ongoing negotiations toward a constructive post-2011 relationship and risks escalation of proxy conflicts in other parts of both North and South Sudan.

The dispute over Abyei -- a territory geographically, ethnically and politically caught between North and South -- is one of the most intractable in Sudan. The area is settled primarily by Ngok Dinka communities and has been used for hundreds of years by Misseriya pastoralists who migrate to and beyond the territory to graze huge cattle herds during the dry season. Clashes early in the year and unresolved tensions have again prevented the Misseriya migration south, and apparently large numbers of cattle may die for lack of grass and water.

The CPA granted Abyei its own referendum (a choice to join the new South or remain a special administrative territory within the North), but this did not take place in part because of heated disputes over who was eligible to vote. Ngok Dinka constituents are overwhelmingly in favour of joining the South, while Misseriya communities fear annexation could prevent migration and thus threaten their way of life.

But the Abyei dispute has also assumed broader political dimensions, and been used as a bargaining chip between North and South. Despite common perceptions, the dispute is not primarily about oil, as the fields currently in Abyei only constitute a very small percentage of Sudan’s total production.

The African Union and the U.S. have made numerous attempts to broker a solution, but none have borne fruit. The parties -- through President Omar al-Bashir in the North and President Salva Kiir in the South -- have agreed that the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), which is tasked to facilitate negotiations on outstanding post-referendum and CPA issues, will table a new proposal toward a political solution in late May.

In the meantime, forward progress on other post-referendum issues (oil, currency, debt, and citizenship) could alter the North-South equation and ideally present a better opportunity for a mutually agreeable solution on Abyei. Meanwhile, tensions between the NCP and SPLM have spiked in neighbouring Southern Kordofan state where elections have just been held. The results have not yet been announced, but will impact North-South relations as well as the potential re-establishment of a Misseriya-dominated Western Kordofan state (in their traditional homeland), and thus further alter the political calculus in Abyei.

Ngok Dinka and Misseriya leaders, and their allies in Juba and Khartoum respectively, are engaged in aggressive posturing in an attempt to influence the political negotiations over the future status of Abyei. Both sides have legitimate concerns and grievances, but their tactics carry enormous risks for the people of Abyei and for peaceful relations between North and South more broadly.

Some believe only international intervention will solve the crisis, but perpetuating a destabilised situation to that end is both highly dangerous and uncertain to deliver results. The risks of miscalculation and crisis escalation are extremely high. No international intervention can substitute for a political agreement between the parties  that must also have buy-in on the ground.

Security has grown ever more precarious for the people of the region. Agreements negotiated under UN auspices  -- 13 and 17 January 2011 and 4 March 2011 -- to stem increasing violence resolved that security would be provided only by newly deployed Joint Integrated Units and Joint Integrated Police Units (created under the May 2008 Abyei roadmap).

However, poor performance, prior involvement of JIU troops in large-scale clashes in 2008 and some seemingly unauthorised relocation have fuelled mistrust. Furthermore, the number of new JIU battalions currently deployed is not enough to secure the entire area; some units, fearing attacks, have reportedly even left the area.

In addition to mobilising and arming civilians, reports indicate that both the SPLA and SAF have deployed additional battalions and heavy weapons to, or near, the area. Further mobilisation or additional deployments inside Abyei would increase the chances for conflict exponentially. The security situation is made all the more precarious by the presence of heavily armed Southern police units, Popular Defence Forces, Misseriya militias and other independent, often criminal, militias. Many of these forces are only loosely controlled, if at all.

To avoid a major crisis in Abyei and beyond, the following steps are necessary:

  • Following the 8 May meeting of the UN-chaired Joint Technical Committee (which comprises representatives of SAF, SPLA, and police and national security officials from North and South) , the two sides must follow through on their commitment to withdraw all unauthorised security elements from the Abyei area by 17 May.
     
  • The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) must be given unfettered access to verify these withdrawals and facilitate implementation of agreed short-term security measures, including the full deployment of vetted and approved JIU forces to agreed locations as per the timeline agreed on 8 May. Basic infrastructure as well as food, water, and logistical supplies are needed to better support the Abyei JIU deployments as long as they are needed to help provide security. The JIU units should not include troops from the Abyei communities. The UN should also consider co-locating liaison officers with the JIUs and stationing others at important checkpoints. The current static deployments in Abyei are insufficient to monitor movements in the area adequately and to build confidence among the population.
     
  • UNMIS should ensure its troops stationed in Abyei are capable of actively supporting the JIUs in providing security and protecting civilians, as per the Kadugli agreements (13 and 17 January). To this end, it should consider increasing troop levels there from other sectors. If some troop contributors are unwilling to take the security risks of protecting civilians under imminent threat of violence as mandated by the UN Security Council, the elements concerned should be immediately replaced in Abyei by more willing ones.
     
  • Both North and South should desist from making unilateral claims to Abyei, whether in rhetoric, constitution drafting or legislation; the territory’s status must be determined by a mutually agreed settlement and local endorsement.
     
  • The AUHIP should accelerate the post-referendum negotiations so as to potentially open the door wider to a political solution on Abyei itself. At the same time, Juba and Khartoum must do whatever necessary to avoid provocation and ensure that local communities remain calm until a new proposal is tabled toward a settlement.
     
  • All international partners, particularly the African Union, UN, Troika members (U.S., UK, and Norway), the European Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Arab League should give firm and united support to the proposal the AUHIP is to submit later this month.

The danger of new conflict is real. Failure to halt the downward trend toward violence in Abyei could unravel the tenuous peace that has been strong enough to get through the Southern Sudan referendum, but it could also intensify proxy war in other parts of Sudan, which will continue to feed the adversarial North-South relationship that both sides have so well accommodated over the course of the CPA period.

Nairobi/Brussels

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.

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