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The Abyei conflict: Igniting the next Sudan civil war?

22nd February 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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There has been a feeling of excitement and joy in the south of Sudan since 9 January 2011 when the country voted in a secession referendum, but this feeling has been overshadowed by the events in, and tension over, the Abyei region. There are mixed feelings and uncertainty surrounding the future of Abyei, as the north and south disagrees over whether the region should belong to the north or south. At the same time, conflict and violence have escalated within the Abyei region. It seems that there is an imminent danger of this conflict seeping over to the rest of Sudan, as the north and south continues to disagree over Abyei’s future.

This possible future conflict reminds one of Sudan’s 21-year civil war. The focus of conflict has now just shifted from ethnicity to independence and referendums – especially concerning the oil and agriculturally valuable areas such as Abyei. A brief overview of the tension in Sudan during the current situation surrounding the referendum reveals several elements that could possibly lead to conflict in the future in spite of the south of Sudan’s new independence. The risk is now to keep conflict contained, so that it does not lead to another civil war.


Leading up to the 2011 referendum

At the end of the Second Sudanese War, a 21-year civil war, both north and south agreed to the 2004 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which also included the Protocol on the resolution of the Abyei conflict. This protocol accorded the Abyei area “special administrative status.”(2) The area was declared, on an interim basis, to be simultaneously part of the states of South Kurdufan and Bahr el Ghazal, but it was determined that there should be two referendums at some stage; one concerning southern secession, and the other concerning the status of Abyei.(3) Determining the status of Abyei was one of the most difficult issues of the CPA, and these concerns have re-surfaced over the years.


This resulted in cases such as October 2007 when the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) temporarily withdrew from the Government of National Unity as a result over several of these issues, notably Abyei. These tensions later developed into clashes between the SPLA and Messiriya fighters and between the SPLA and Government troops. During 2007 and 2008, there were several armed clashes and violence, which resulted in high death tolls. These clashes were seen by some as a serious threat to the peace process and a possible trigger for the resumption of civil war.(4) As a result of the conflict, violence, and deaths, international arbitration was requested to determine the Abyei area’s boundaries. This task was assigned to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.(5)

In 2009, it was determined that the northern, eastern, and western boundaries be redrawn, which decreased the size of Abyei. However, the size of Abyei is crucial to the political dispute, as it determines which residents will take part in the future referendum to determine whether to become part of the north or south.(6) The new boundaries gave control of most of the oil fields to the north, while the south had at least one – a reason why the north is not eager to lose access to the area. At that stage, the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of Sudan both made announcements that they would accept the ruling – which was hailed by the United States (US), European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN).(7) Yet in 2011, another agreement had to be negotiated to end the new waves of conflict, and this agreement was only reached after intense diplomatic efforts led by the US and former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The three main points of the agreement ensure that blood money is paid for all the people killed in the 2010 clashes, that the Misseriya provides security on the roads used by southerners returning to the south, and that the Misseriya is allowed to travel on the migratory routes south in 15 days.(8)

Nevertheless, tensions have still been high in spite of these agreements, or rather, tensions have heightened when these agreements have been broken. It seems these agreements and the one referendum that has taken place will ensure peace in most areas in Sudan. Unfortunately, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) stated, “[w]hat happens in Abyei is likely to determine whether Sudan consolidates the peace or returns to war.”(9) Southern Sudan will become Africa’s 54th nation on 9 July 2011, yet the issue on Abyei has not made any progress, except increase tensions which may result in conflict on a larger scale.

Abyei: The north-south issue

The referendum on independence for the south was nearly overshadowed by clashes between the two rival ethnic groups in Abyei. Fortunately, both groups signed a deal to end the violence, and the violence did not interrupt the south’s referendum. But the agreement does not offer a solution for the Abyei situation. There has been speculation by some Government representatives that there have been attempts to subdue the people of Abyei by force, to keep them from obtaining self-determination. This state of affairs has become a worrisome and explosive situation. As former UN Chief Kofi Annan stated, "[w]hen you leave such issues to fester and to linger, you can be surprised and it can lead to miscalculations by one side or the other."(10) It would thus seem swift resolution of the conflict in Abyei is imperative to keep peace, but this does not seem possible as there are several problems looming.

The first major problem is that Abyei’s referendum has been postponed indefinitely, as the leaders cannot agree on who is eligible to vote in the referendum. The question is whether the Misseriya, who migrate to Abyei each year to find water and pasture for their livestock, should also be given a vote. Some leaders and the Misseriya believe that they have a right to vote, while others believe that the Dinka Ngok, who lives in the area, should be given a vote. The aspect that is important to note is that the Dinka Ngok will most likely vote in favour of the south, while the Misseriya will vote in favour of staying with the north.(11) The Ngok Dinka want to be part of the south, but have agreed to continue to provide the Misseriya with grazing rights in the area, whether Abyei becomes part of the north or south.

In spite of the Ngok Dinka’s promises, Misseriya leader, Sadig Babo Nimir, has stated that the land is part of the north, whether or not the Ngok decide to go to the south or not. These views are also reflected on a national level, largely due to the rumours about untapped oil reserves.(12) The Ngok Dinka mainly support the southern SPLA, while the Misseriya mainly supports the Government, and this leadership now also supports each side. While representatives of the SPLM feel that Abyei should be transferred to the south by presidential decree if the referendum does not take place, the northern Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said that he will not accept Abyei as part of the south.(13) Both sides have accused the other of sending troops to the Abyei area; the NCP and SPLM have agreed to hold talks to overcome the crisis, as all fear more attacks.

A volatile situation

The African Union (AU) has offered to assist in these talks,(14) as experts are concerned that this conflict will be difficult to stop once it escalates to national level. The ICG believes that Abyei will continue to be a source of instability, if left unresolved, especially now that the ability of peacekeepers to patrol the area has been restricted by both sides.(15) The recent clashes between the two groups have even affected and attacked convoys of Sudanese civilians returning home.(16) At the beginning of January 2011, clashes left more than 30 dead, and the people of Abyei had the additional fear of being left behind when the South gets its independence. At this stage, the Ngok Dinka is considering declaring Abyei as part of the South, but there is the fear that this could provoke the north to take Abyei by force. Notwithstanding, the situation cannot be left unresolved, as this would leave Abyei caught between the predominately Muslim and Arab north and Christian and traditional-followed religions of the south.

If Abyei does not vote, it will likely retain its semi-autonomous status in the north. But the people of Abyei want the opportunity to have a referendum, such as was agreed to in the CPA agreement. The people of Abyei believe that as soon as they have the right to hold their own referendum that attacks on their region would stop. They are also upset that the two referendums did not take place simultaneously as they were supposed to. Residents of the region stated that if the referendum did not take place soon, they would take up arms, even if it were only to protect themselves from the recent clashes in the area. These clashes also appear to some as attempts by Khartoum-backed Misseriya to take the area by force. The Misseriya has denied claims that they are preparing for a takeover, although they will defend their land by force should a referendum actually take place.(17)

Supporters in the SPLM and the SPLA may defect and join them. If all this happens, the northern army will sooner or later come in. The army’s entry will bring about another war in Sudan as many Sudanese believe that failure to hold the referendum as scheduled will lead to increased tensions in central Sudan (the Abyei region), and maybe even spark renewed clashes between the north and south. Due to the pressure, both sides have increased security, which is creating the risk of unintended conflict.(18) It must also be noted that in spite of the leaders’ opposition to Abyei belonging to the other side, Governments and leaders have not openly contributed to any of the clashes. At this stage, many leaders are instead focussing on the south’s independence and growth, and will rather attempt to avoid any conflict. However, this will mean they will have to accept Abyei’s future and that action must be taken to curtail the violence in the Abyei area before it spreads.

Concluding remarks

In light of the tensions in and around the Abyei region, conflict will continue in the region unless immediate changes are implemented. Neither north nor south Sudan will allow Abyei to be part of the other without a referendum, which is problematic and unlikely at this stage. Choosing without a referendum will also result in tension, as the Abyei people are discontented. Both states will fight for the region; just as the people on the grassroots level have been fighting over the region. These tensions and conflicts and grassroots clashes could eventually start taking place on a national level, and unless international intervention finds a solution, another civil war is likely.

Nevertheless, tension will not necessarily result in another civil war, as the leaders have other goals; the conflict will not stop unless the leadership takes action to bring about a referendum or to come to an agreement on the area’s status. The danger now is more to the people of Abyei and the returning refugees, a danger that could spread to the north and south of Sudan over the grazing rights and possibility of oil in Abyei. Thus, the region of Abyei is a worrisome and volatile situation, but the actions of those in charge in the north and south will determine whether violent conflict continues as clashes between the people, or whether a war will break out.


(1) Contact Annette Theron through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit (
(2) ‘Protocol on the resolution of Abyei conflict’, Relief Web, 26 May 2004,
(3) ‘Sudan Deal to end Abyei clashes’, BBC News Africa, 14 January 2011,
(4) Wheeler, S., ‘Armed Sudanese nomads block key north-south route’, Reuters Africa, 12 February 2008,
(5) ‘Arbitration Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army on Delimiting Abyei Area, 7 July 2008,
(6) ‘Sudan welcomes oil border ruling’, BBC News, 22 July 2009,
(7) Otterman, S., ‘Court redraws disputed are in Sudan’, New York Times, 22 July2009,
(8) ‘Sudan Deal to end Abyei clashes’, BBC News Africa, 14 January 2011,
(9) ‘Sudan: Breaking the Abyei Deadlock’, International Crisis Group, 12 October 2007,
(10) Ibid.
(11) ‘Sudan Deal to end Abyei clashes’, BBC News Africa, 14 January 2011,
(12) Hamilton, R., ‘Fear of Flare-up in Sudan Border Town of Abyei’, The Washington Post, 24 January 2011,
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘South Sudan hails independence vote’, News24, 13 January 2011,
(15) Hamilton, R., ‘Fear of Flare-up in Sudan Border Town of Abyei’, The Washington Post, 24 January 2011,
(16) ‘Sudan Deal to end Abyei clashes’, BBC News Africa, 14 January 2011,
(17) Hamilton, R., ‘Fear of Flare-up in Sudan Border Town of Abyei’, The Washington Post, 24 January 2011,
(18) Ibid.

Written by Annette Theron (1)


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