In a matter of weeks, the Republic of South Sudan is scheduled to gain full independence. This step is the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that is intended to permanently resolve the decades-long civil war that led to an estimated 2 million deaths. However, this peace and independence process is threatened by continued violence in the disputed border area of Abyei (the South Kordofan region).
Abyei has long been one of the most intractable issues between Sudan and South Sudan. The territory is subject to competing historical and ethnic claims. Because oil resources are overwhelmingly located in South Sudan, Khartoum also has an economic incentive to maintain control over oil rich Abyei. As a result, neither side is willing to yield on Abyei, and the dispute threatens entire peace process.
To facilitate negotiations and fulfill the terms of the CPA, the issue of independence for South Sudan was separated from the claims over Abyei. Plans for a referendum on independence for South Sudan proceeded, and a vote was held in January 2011 that overwhelmingly supported independence.
Meanwhile, Abyei was supposed to hold its own vote the same day as the South’s referendum on independence. However, both parties failed to agree on voter eligibility requirements. As a result, the referendum was postponed indefinitely.
Fearful of losing Abyei, Khartoum has taken steps to impede this process. In recent months, Khartoum has further destabilized the security situation along the north-south border. In the weeks building up to Abyei’s recent occupation, Khartoum sent helicopters, tanks, and troops to the border. Khartoum has also continued to support armed militias in their attacks against southerners. These militias are believed to have been instrumental in the seizure of Abyei.
Friction between Khartoum and South Sudan has intensified in recent weeks. On May 19, the Southern Sudan Police Forces attacked a U.N. convoy carrying Sudanese troops. The United States condemned the attack, and the U.N. has called it “a criminal act against the United Nations.”
The dramatic retaliation by Khartoum has escalated the situation further. In what the White House is calling “blatant violations” of the CPA, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ordered his Sudanese Armed Forces to occupy Abyei. Abyei’s administration was summarily disbanded, and thousands of residents have been displaced.
In an attempt to diffuse the volatile situation, the North’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the SPLM submitted a new round of preliminary plans to create a demilitarized zone to be monitored by peacekeepers from the African Union. However, Bashir has proven repeatedly that he cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith. NCP officials refuse to withdraw troops from Abyei, and the SPLM is doubtful that Khartoum will honor any implementation of a demilitarized zone.
Bashir’s refusal to remove troops from Abyei greatly complicates the U.S. Administration’s roadmap to normalized relations with Khartoum. The plan includes a demand for a peaceful negotiated solution for Abyei, completion of the tasks outlined in the CPA, a solution to oil issues, and respect for the outcome of January’s referendum. As seen by the recent events in Abyei, Khartoum has failed to live up to these standards.
On July 9, Southern Sudan will become a sovereign state. However, the unresolved situation in Abyei threatens the fragile peace process, and the birth of the new nation of South Sudan could coincide with a renewed war between Khartoum and South Sudan.
While the South has contributed to the friction, the lion’s share of blame clearly lies with Khartoum. The takeover of Abyei one month from the CPA’s completion is further evidence that Khartoum’s commitment to the peace process is disingenuous. Giving Khartoum a pass on its most recent infringements will damage the credibility of the Administration’s policy toward Sudan. Khartoum’s failing to meet U.S standards for normalization should be met with tougher conditions by the Obama Administration.