Celebrate Independence for South Sudan! But Remain Vigilant on Abyei

Eric Reeves
January 13, 2011

The evidence that Khartoum has substantially increased its military presence along the North/South border is overwhelming. This is especially worrisome in the Abyei region, which remains extraordinarily volatile and a clear flash point for a resumed conflict. Of particular note is the compelling research on arms in the South Kordofan region by the Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (Small Arms Survey) (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures.php ). But a recent news clip from al-Jazeera, on location in South Kordofan, is also telling in what it records, both as video photography of arms movements and a highly revealing interview with Khartoum’s chief official in the region (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZ5HnZT_FTI&feature=youtube_gdata_player ). For representing the Khartoum regime in this clip is the governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. As State Minister for Internal Affairs, Haroun was a key instrument in the larger genocidal counter-insurgency with which President Omar al-Bashir has been charged by the ICC (dismayingly, this has not prevented the UN in Sudan from recently providing transportation to the indicted Haroun). Haroun’s denial of the documentary evidence of military and arms movements in South Kordofan, presented directly to him by an al-Jazeera reporter, is a characteristic example of pure mendacity. His ability on this score and his loyalty to the ambitions of the regime are among the reasons he was moved from Darfur to what all understood could be the next potential killing field.

The Abyei crisis must be resolved—peacefully, through robust mediation—or it is difficult to imagine peace surviving in South Sudan. More broadly, a separation of forces along the Northern Bahr el-Ghazal/Unity State border with South Kordofan must be undertaken by the UN force in Sudan, UNMIS (UN Mission in Sudan); this is something the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has repeatedly called for, but Khartoum has refused. In the absence of such an intervening force, there has already been substantial violence along the border (including aerial military attacks on Southern military and civilian targets by Khartoum); moreover, weaponry continues to pour into the region (see appendix for a compendium of recent reports on these developments). And yet the international diplomatic community has failed both to mediate the clash over differing visions of Abyei’s future and to dampen increasing military tensions.

In the case of Abyei, diplomatic failure derives largely from a refusal to recognize the compromises the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has already made—accepting the terms of the Abyei Protocol (May 2004), which would become part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 2005); accepting the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission stipulated in the Protocol (July 2005); and finally accepting the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009) on Abyei’s boundaries, even as that ruling favored Khartoum’s claims on the basis of shaky reasoning and geography.

And the SPLM has compromised still further as Khartoum has recently decided to raise the issue of voting rights for Misseriya Arab groups that migrate into Abyei (as presently defined) for only a few months a year, something of no interest to the regime prior to the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Even so, many compromises have been proposed by the SPLM on the issue of residency, and all have been rejected by Khartoum. Here we should recall that the Abyei Protocol establishes clear terms of reference in its first section:

1.1.2 “[Abyei] is defined as the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905;

1.1.3 “The Misseriya and other nomadic peoples retain their traditional rights to graze cattle and move across the territory of Abyei.”

With this as context, the Abyei Protocol is also quite explicit about residency, and hence voting rights: “The residents of Abyei Area shall be: The members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area” (6.1. [a]). The Protocol further stipulates that, “The criteria of residence shall be worked out by the Abyei Referendum Commission” (6.1. [b])—precisely the Commission that al-Bashir refuses to form, despite the insistence in the Protocol that, “There shall be established by the Presidency an Abyei Referendum Commission to conduct the Abyei referendum simultaneously with the referendum of Southern Sudan” (8.1).

The fact that Khartoum has so thoroughly traduced this key Protocol of the CPA is cause for real concern. There is certainly nothing to justify the attempt by former South African president Thabo Mbeki to suggest that worries about Abyei and the border with South Kordofan are somehow the product of those who “do not wish Sudan well”:

“And yet, the more the people of Sudan have communicated these messages [concerning the referendum] in unequivocal terms, those who do not wish Sudan well, have grown ever more strident in their propagation of their scenarios of gloom and doom. We are very happy that their ill-advised expectations will be disappointed as the leaders and people of Sudan honour their solemn undertakings and do what is right for them and the rest of Africa.” (Speech in Juba on January 8, 2011, the day before referendum voting began)

The outrageous charge implicit here is that concern about Abyei—and about other remaining border disputes, as well as about the pressing and unresolved issues of wealth-sharing, citizenship, Sudan’s enormous external debt, and security—is somehow suggestive of a desire to harm Sudan, a “strident” and gratuitous “gloom and doom,” or a revelation of “ill-advised expectations.” This is a preposterous assessment, and finally a means for Mbeki to deflect blame from his own failures, first in Darfur and now in his role as an African Union mediator in North/South negotiations. Most consequentially, Mbeki has failed to mediate effectively between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka of Abyei (following the failed diplomatic efforts of the U.S. and envoy Scott Gration). He is neither trusted nor well-regarded by the Ngok, and the general perception that he is much too close to Khartoum has done much to poison the negotiating atmosphere. As one resident put the matter: “One Ngok Dinka civil society leader told [Africa Confidential] Mbeki was basically telling the Ngok that the Abyei Protocol and Permanent Court of Arbitration boundaries must all be renegotiated because the Misseriya wouldn’t budge” (Africa Confidential, November 19, 2010, Vol. 51 No. 23).

And just who is Thabo Mbeki to speak of “what is right for Africa”? He is, let us not forget, the African leader who chose to throw a political lifeline to the tyrant Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, even as Mugabe was leading his country toward unimaginable destruction and suffering. Mbeki is the man whose ludicrous understanding of HIV/AIDS led much of South Africa into a medical nightmare that cost countless lives, and in the process set the worst possible example for other African leaders.

For its part, the Khartoum regime has clearly decided that its interests lie in maintaining unrest in Abyei and along the disputed border as a means of generating diplomatic leverage. Khartoum has relentlessly misinformed the Misseriya leadership about the meaning of the Abyei referendum and indeed has persuaded many leaders that any yielding to the Ngok or the South will cost them their pastoral and grazing rights—a claim that is false and has repeatedly been declared such by the SPLM. The CPA guarantees those rights, and this has been fully accepted by all parties in the South. On the other hand, efforts to rig the Abyei referendum—factitiously creating residency for the Misseriya out of their seasonal pastoral migration into the region—will simply not be accepted by either the Ngok or the SPLM. Mbeki’s failure to see this suggests how much ignorance lies behind his absurd characterizations.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is good news from Kadugli (South Kordofan) today, as tribal leaders of both the Ngok and Misseriya reached a preliminary agreement that addresses some of the misunderstandings about grazing rights and “the sensitive issues of migration, compensation for past violence and the spread of weapons in the disputed border district” (Agence France Press [dateline: Kadugli, South Kordofan], January 13, 2011). Not only does this agreement diminish tensions, it demonstrates that local leaders—if not forced to contend with Khartoum’s machinations—have the resources necessary to overcome their differences. Follow-up on this preliminary agreement is critical.

There is, to be sure, a long history of contentious relations between the two groups in the general Abyei region; but it is only with Khartoum’s decision to politicize the Abyei crisis for diplomatic advantage that we have reached the point where the region may become a casus belli. So far Abyei has not had a dampening effect on Southerners voting for their future. And it is indeed a time for jubilation and celebration—in Juba and throughout South Sudan. A successful referendum is about to conclude with participation much greater than the required quorum of 60 percent and a vote for secession that will easily exceed 95 percent. The people of the South should be enormously and justifiably proud. The new nation in Southern Sudan is becoming a reality, and the joy among Southerners should be the cause of joy for all who wish for a just peace throughout Sudan.

But it is also a time for vigilance. The enormous news coverage that has descended on Juba and other Southern towns will soon fade, and the struggle to make from this independence vote a viable and secure country will then truly begin. It will not be easy. Humanitarian indicators are extremely worrisome, especially for the many tens of thousands who have returned from the North, and will continue to return in the coming months (the fate of Southerners in the North becomes more ominous by the day). Vigilance is also required to ensure that the serious outstanding issues, especially Abyei, do not become the occasion for renewed violence. Here the monitoring role of the Satellite Sentinel Program will be a critical complement to the presence of UNMIS along the border regions (http://www.satsentinel.org/ ). Khartoum must feel itself continually in the spotlight, and must also be pressed hard to accept the additional 2,000 troops for UNMIS recommended by UN Under-secretary for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy. Le Roy should also push for higher standards for the troops making up UNMIS, and replace most of the UNMIS civilian leadership in Khartoum, and move new personnel to the South.

Despite Mbeki’s spiteful and inaccurate accusations, the reality is that peace has yet to be achieved, and Khartoum’s intentions are anything but clear. The indication of large-scale weapons movements southwards and the general military build-up in South Kordofan not only violate the terms of the CPA but pose an immediate risk to the border regions. Khartoum has lied so often, reneged on so many agreements, resorted to military force on so many occasions, that only a fool like Mbeki would assume that there are no credible “scenarios of gloom and doom.”

January 13, 2011

APPENDIX: A compendium of recent news reporting on violence, arms movements, and threats to peace in South Kordofan, Abyei, and along the North/South border---

•Christian Science Monitor (dateline: Juba), January 11, 2011:
“In Khartoum on Friday [January 7, 2011], [President al-Bashir] had harsher words for Abyei, warning of war if the Ngok Dinka attempted to unilaterally hold their own vote. ‘We will not accept Abyei to be part of the south,’ Bashir told Al Jazeera television over the weekend. ‘If any party takes independent action over Abyei, that would be the beginning of a conflict.’” (emphasis added)

•Deutsche Press Agentur (dpa) (dateline: Juba), January 13, 2011:
“At least 76 people have died in three days of clashes between rival tribes in Sudan’s restive Abyei region, an [SPLA] official said Thursday [January 13, 2011] as a landmark referendum on independence for the south passed the 60-per-cent threshold needed to make it valid. ‘For the Misseriya side, it was above 50 [killed],’ Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), told the German Press Agency dpa. 'On the side of the police and youth of Abyei, it was more than 26 killed and 33 wounded.’” (emphasis added)

•Agence France Presse (dateline: Abyei), January 13, 2011:
“‘They came in waves, they wore uniforms and tried to surround out village,’ said Anord Monwier, a pro-southerner from Maker Abior [Abyei] in the northern part of the flashpoint district which was one of the main focuses of the weekend clashes. ‘They charged at us, they chased us and when I saw the police arrive I thought that that was only going to complicate matters,’ said another witness, Montoc Agok.”

•New York Times (dateline: Juba), January 11, 2011:
“Ten civilians were killed along Sudan’s increasingly tense north-south border, Sudanese officials said on Tuesday [January 11, 2011], as voting continued for a third day in a landmark referendum on southern Sudan’s independence. According to Col. Philip Aguer, a southern Sudan military spokesman, several truckloads of heavily armed nomads ambushed a convoy of 23 vehicles carrying southern Sudanese, who were returning home on Monday to vote in the referendum. Beyond the 10 civilians killed in the attack, 18 civilians were injured and their belongings were looted….” (emphasis added)

•Reuters (dateline: Khartoum), January 11, 2011:
“Leading members of Abyei's Dinka Ngok tribe, linked to the south, accused Khartoum of arming the area's Arab Misseriya militias in clashes on Friday [January 7, 2011], Saturday and Sunday and said they were expecting more attacks in days to come. The speaker of the Abyei administration, Charles Abyei, said the Misseriya attacked because they had heard false rumours the Dinka were about to declare themselves part of the south. ‘A large number of Misseriya attacked Maker village yesterday (Sunday), backed by government militia ... The first day one person died, the second day nine, yesterday 13 ... It will continue,’ he said.” (emphasis added)

•The Christian Science Monitor (dateline: Juba), February 11, 2011:
“…southern officials say the Misseriya were armed with heavy artillery and supported by Khartoum-backed militias, and that the attacks were planned.” (emphasis added)

•Reuters (dateline: Khartoum), January 11, 2011:
“In another sign of tension, southern army spokesman Philip Aguer said two men—a Ugandan and a northern army soldier—were arrested with four boxes holding 700 rounds of AK-47 ammunition in the southern capital Juba on Sunday night [January 9, 2011].” (emphasis added)

•Reuters (dateline: Khartoum), January 10, 2011:
“At least 36 people have died in clashes between Arab nomads and southerners near Sudan's north-south border, leaders in the contested Abyei region said on Monday, on the second day of a vote on southern independence. Analysts say the central region of Abyei is the most likely place for north-south tensions to erupt into violence during and after the vote.”

•Bloomberg, January 10, 2011:
“…casualties among the Ngok Dinka, which totaled 13 in January 9 clashes near the village of Maker, north of Abyei town…. The northern government’s Popular Defense Forces militias were involved in the attacks and had anti-tank weapons and artillery, the southern army spokesman [Philip] Aguer said. ‘We are told they are mobilizing organized attacks, the Misseriya and the PDF,’ he said in a phone interview.” (emphasis added)

•Associated Press (dateline: Juba) January 9, 2011:
“Col. Philip Aguer, the spokesman for Southern Sudan's army, said that the Misseriya, an Arab tribe that moves its cattle herds through Abyei, attacked the village of Maker-Adhar on Sunday with anti-tank weapons and artillery. Aguer said he believes the attack was planned. ‘They were not with cattle, they were coming for (an) attack,’ Aguer said. Aguer said the Misseriya were accompanied by uniformed militia men known as the Popular Defense Forces, a Khartoum-backed militia whose existence was outlawed by the 2005 peace agreement that ended the 23-year north-south civil war. Aguer said 20 police serving with Abyei's joint integrated police unit were killed. Another 30 were wounded.” (emphasis added)

•The Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2011:
“Speaking to Sudan Tribune from the oil-producing region, Juac Agok, the acting SPLM chairman in the area, said armed groups camouflaged as nomads killed 28 local police in a series of clashes on Friday [January 7, 2011], Saturday and Sunday. ‘[An] armed group possessing heavy artillery and tanks launched series of attacks on police posts in three different places in the area on Friday and Saturday. They also attacked the same and additional three other locations today,’ said Agok. Agok said the clashes occurred in Maker Abior, Miakol, Todach and Shegei. ‘They launched heavy attack on the police post today (Sunday) at 11 o’clock this morning at Maker Abior resulting into the killing of 18 on the side of local police and injury of 20 others.’” (emphasis added)

•The Sudan Tribune, January 8, 2011
“SPLA spokesperson Philip Aguer, said the southern Sudan army ambushed militia loyal to Galwak Gai. He also claimed in statements to Reuters they were sent by Khartoum to disrupt the south’s referendum. ‘They were coming from the north to disrupt the referendum. It is a known game. The spoilers are always here. They definitely came from Khartoum,’ he told Reuters. On Saturday Gai’s forces launched a counter attack against the SPLA [in Unity State].” (emphasis added)

•El-Ahram on-line (dateline: Juba), January 11, 2011
“‘The National Conference Party, the ruling party, is behind the clashes in Abyei; al-Bashir’s regime is pushing the southern government for a war but they will not get it,’ said Edward Leno, member at the political bureau of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its envoy to the Abyei region. He added that Al-Bashir’s government cannot deny its involvement since the southern government has captured mercenaries—funded and armed by Khartoum—involved in Abyei clashes.”

•Sudanese President Warns of War over Abyei Province
(Aljazeera.com, January 8, 2011; Al-Rai Al-'Am (Sudan), January 9, 2011)
“Despite his reassuring statements during his visit last week to Southern Sudan, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir has warned that war might break out if the tribes in Abyei Province unilaterally declare their province part of the South.
The head of Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Service, Muhammad 'Atta, said that if the authorities in the South did not expel the Darfurian rebels from their territory, this could lead to war.” (emphasis added)

•The Sudan Tribune, December 28, 2010
“Sudan foreign minister Ali Karti warned today that South Sudan support to Darfur rebel groups will lead to war with the new country. If the South Sudan government wants to start its new era with a war that will be the case if it harbors Darfur movements, said the Sudanese official in a press briefing in Khartoum with the visiting Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.” (emphasis added)

•Associated Press (dateline: Kiir Adem), December 14, 2010
“Craters and damaged huts mark this town [Kiir Adem] that lies near the divide between north and south Sudan—the result, southern officials say, of repeated bombings by warplanes sent by Khartoum in hopes of scuttling an independence vote. The Associated Press saw the damage during a visit to the site this week. Sudan's government denies it was involved in any aerial attack against the south. Southern officials and commanders reject that claim of innocence. Fearful of more attacks, thousands of civilians have fled the verdant fishing village of Kiir Adem.”

“The first [bombing attack] happened late in the day of November 11, [2010], when three Chinese–made MiG fighter jets and two Antonovs passed over Kiir Adem, dropping at least one bomb. At first, southern officials downplayed the event, saying the bomb landed on the north side of the Kiir River in what they consider to be northern territory. The north said at the time it was targeting fighters from Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. But the aircraft returned the next day. This time bombs fell on the southern side of the river, wounding seven southern troops and five civilians, said the south's top officer in the region, Maj. Gen. Santino Deng Wol. During a visit to the bomb site, an AP reporter saw a crater 30 feet (10 meters) in diameter and about six feet (two meters) deep, several hundred yards (meters) from a major southern military instillation and 100 yards (meters) from the only major bridge in the area…. [SAF spokesman Sawarmy Khaled declared] ‘These are baseless accusations which we have repeatedly denied as baseless,’ Khaled said in remarks published by the daily newspaper Akhbar Ayoum.” (emphasis added) [The SPLA has no aerial bombing capability—ER]

•Associated Press (dateline: UN/New York), December 16, 2011
“In South Sudan's capital, Juba, UN spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said Thursday that a joint committee from the north, south and UN concluded that three bomb attacks in the south this month, made by aircraft from the northern Sudanese military, were ‘unfortunate and should not be repeated.’" (emphasis added)

•The Sudan Tribune, December 18, 2010
“A local administration official in the contested oil-producing area of Abyei on Saturday reported that the northern Sudanese army has deployed troops in South Kordofan state, which borders southern Sudan. The daily newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted the press secretary of Abyei administration, Shul Angok, said that the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) was continuing to increase military province in the South Kordofan region…. Angok claimed that the 31st Battalion of SAF was currently present in the areas of Nama and Laffat al-Tumsah, adding that the battalion was receiving large reinforcements.” (emphasis added) [The infamous 31st brigade/battalion—largely Misseriya recruited by Khartoum—was primarily responsible for the violent destruction of Abyei town in May 2008, which killed many dozens of people and displaced as many as 90,000 civilians—ER]

•Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (Small Arms Survey), December 2010 (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures.php ):
“In the six years since the CPA [Sudan Armed Forces, SAF] troops in South Kordofan have not been downsized. Rather, they have been upsized—including, in the last few months, with tanks that military observers say are intended to control the North–South border, especially around Abyei and the front-line oilfields of Unity state, in the event that January’s self-determination referendum on Southern Sudan leads to hostilities or even, in a worst-case scenario, renewed civil war. According to these observers, the build-up also appears designed to cut supply lines between the forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Sudan and those in South Kordofan, and to threaten the SPLA forces that have been deployed.” (emphasis added)

•Misseriya tribe warns of war over Sudan referendum
(Al Jazeera TV, Qatar [translation/transcript, January 3, 2011])
“Presenter, Male #1: The Misseriya tribe warned both the north and the south of making any bilateral decision regarding the Abyei region, indicating that it will lead to a full-scale war. A Misseriya leader, Bishtina Abdul Salam, affirmed that his tribe is fully ready to stop what he referred to as any abuse of Sudan's rules and regulations in order to exclude the tribe or seize its rights. Al-Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Taib traveled from Khartoum to al-Mujallad, a Misseriyan town in Abyei, and observed the situation there.” (emphasis added)

“Reporter, Male #1: It has been leaked to media outlets that the Dinka Ngok tribe is taking measures to unilaterally announce its decision on the fate of the Abyei region by making it part of the south….

“Guest, Male #1: (Bishtina Mohammed Abdul Salam, Misseriya tribe leader) ‘If the Dinka make this decision to annex Abyei to the south there will be an immediate war without any excuse. We think they should be reasonable and think about it. They should know that those who are pushing them to make that decision will not give them any back-up.’” (emphasis added)

•Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (Small Arms Survey), December 2010 (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures.php ):
“SPLA sources claim that the Sudan Armed Forces troops, reportedly divided among more than 100 garrisons, are armed with artillery, 120 mm mortars, D-30s (122 mm howitzers), T-55 tanks, anti-tank guns mounted on Land Cruisers, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). A document dated 15 January 2009 suggests that SAF has even heavier weaponry. Marked ‘Strictly Confidential’, it requests the following items for the 5th Division:

• 2,000 40-barrel rocket launchers.
• 1,000 12-barrel rocket launchers.
• 1,000 howitzer shells.
• 1,000 D-30 shells.
• 1,000 artillery shells (100 mm).
• 600 artillery shells (130 mm).
• 50 SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

“A separate document, from the same date, confirms dispatch of the seven types of
weapons. Accompanying ammunition includes 4,000 12.7 mm rounds, 2,000 RPG
shells, and 400 hand grenades.” (emphasis added)

[ ]

“Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the future of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) has been contested, as has its relationship with SAF. Still described as a force of mujahideen (holy warriors), the PDF has continued to exist as a military and civilian network to mobilize militia auxiliaries throughout Sudan, in contravention of the CPA. It was a main vehicle of the jihad in the Nuba Mountains, the heart of South Kordofan state, and today has active units in Darfur and the Transitional Areas—especially in South Kordofan.” (emphasis added)