By Maiwen Dot Phoet
April 15, 2014 - Over the past month, reports received from sources on the ground in Abyei confirm the withdrawal of soldiers affiliated with South Sudan’s army and police from villages where they were previously stationed. However, this withdrawal alone is not enough to achieve lasting peace in Abyei. Further steps need to be undertaken to find a lasting solution to the conflict, including the provision by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) of adequate protection for civilians in the Abyei area, the full implementation of all pending provisions outlined in the June 2011 agreement, and the resumption of community-based peace initiatives between the Missiriya and the Ngok-Dinka community.
According to a report released by the UN Secretary General on February 25, UNISFA reported the presence of 660 elements from South Sudan’s army and police force around the villages of Noong and Makir. In late February and early March 2014, fierce clashes ensued between these forces and Missiriya militias along nomadic migration routes. In one deadly attack on March 1, over one hundred people were killed from the Ngok-Dinka community alone. Scores of families have been displaced from Abyei town and surrounding villages towards Agok town, south of Abyei. Missiriya militias have sustained fewer casualties and there are fears that Khartoum might take advantage of the crisis in South Sudan to support additional attacks in the area.
In March 2014, the Enough Project released an urgent policy alert for an immediate withdrawal of all unauthorized forces from Abyei under the June 2011 agreement, pointing out the critical need for a referendum and final status resolution in order to avert a resurgence of violent conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.
Recent reports from people on the ground in Abyei indicate the withdrawal of South Sudanese forces, at least from their previous positions around Makir and Noong. Mounting pressure on the Government of South Sudan by UNISFA has tempered prospects for renewed military confrontations in the Abyei area. Reportedly, a meeting held in Abyei between UNISFA and the Inspector-General of the South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS), General Pieng Deng Kuol, a member of the Ngok-Dinka community, resulted in assurances to withdraw forces loyal to South Sudan from the area. On the heels of the withdrawal of these forces, locals blamed armed Missiriya militias for perpetrating another violent incident targeting civilians in Nyinchuor village west of Abyei town.
The Ngok-Dinka community, which has long been exposed to series of violent attacks, needs additional assurances that they will not be targeted after the withdrawal of South Sudanese security forces. The congested nature of displacement in and around Agok town has forced many Ngok-Dinka families to return to northern Abyei to access land for farming and cattle-keeping. UNISFA should redouble its efforts to provide adequate physical protection to those returnees.
To make peace effective, UNISFA’s efforts to demilitarize the Abyei area must be coupled with supportive actions that consolidate peace between the communities in Abyei. The annual Missiriya nomadic migration which started in October last year should also be secured and protected to avoid tensions with the embittered Ngok-Dinka community. While UNISFA’s buffering policy has averted escalations in the past, there is still a need to engage both communities in direct dialogue and interaction. The AU committee, which was tasked to investigate the killing of the Ngok-Dinka Paramount Chief in May 2013, must now release its report to the public. When published, this report can be a foundation for a sincere reconciliation between the Ngok-Dinka and Missiriya people. UNISFA should also use its existing security committees to allow for direct interaction between the Ngok-Dinka and Missiriya people.
There are speculations by some observers that the issue of Abyei was discussed during the meetings of President Kiir and President Bashir in Khartoum last week. No official details have been released on what has been agreed upon with regards to the situation in Abyei. However, statements made by Sudanese officials suggest that the two presidents might have agreed to proceed with the implementation of the June 2011 agreement, which provides for the formation of joint administration and police in Abyei. The two governments must now work to reconvene the meetings of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee, or AJOC, to discuss the modalities for stabilizing the security and political situation on the ground.
The international community must work to convince Khartoum to withdraw its forces from Diffra. The presence of these forces inside the Abyei area constitutes a clear breach of the June 2011 agreement. Additionally, the African Union and the United Nations must push for a sideline meeting between Sudan and South Sudan in Addis Ababa to discuss recent developments in Abyei and the overall political status of the area. Knowing that Ngok-Dinka communities have voted in an informal community referendum in October 2013, the international community must now engage with Sudan and South Sudan to implement their legal obligations towards conducting an internationally supported referendum based on the June 2011 agreement. Without a clear plan to organize a final and binding referendum, the Ngok-Dinka community may continue to oppose the idea of forming a joint administration in Abyei.
Maiwen Dot Pheot is an Enough Project researcher based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Ngok-Dinka ethnic group of Abyei. He can be reached through his e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.