Legal experts in The Hague make a binding decision on 22 July setting the boundaries of Sudan’s oil- and pasture-rich Abyei region – ruling on a dispute that has threatened the country’s fragile peace accord. The following briefing examines the background to the Abyei Arbitral Tribunal’s decision.
What is Abyei?
An oil-rich area straddling the border between north and south Sudan, jutting into the states of Western Kordofan and Northern Bahr al-Gazal. Since 2005 it should have been administered jointly by the ruling parties of Northern and Southern Sudan. During the 1983-2005 civil war both sides used local communities as proxy forces.
What is the Abyei Protocol?
A chapter of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) (www.sudanarchive.net), which provides for a referendum in 2011 when Abyei will decide whether to join the north or the south, and for a joint administration until then. The protocol outlines how the region’s oil revenue is shared between the Northern Government of National Unity (GNU) and the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and enshrines the grazing rights of Misseriya pastoralists who live to the north of Abyei. It also tasked an Abyei Boundaries Commission to “define and demarcate” the area, whose borders are disputed by north and south.
Chapter IV of the CPA states that the people who live in Abyei permanently are of the Ngok section of the Dinka ethnic group. Arab communities, including the Misseriya, traditionally move through the area at certain seasons with their livestock for pasture, water and trade, meaning that the two communities regularly interact – and have clashed in the past.
What is the role of the Permanent Court of Arbitration?
The commission’s “final and binding” ruling, issued in July 2005, determined that Abyei was much larger than the northern government claimed. Abyei’s size matters because it affects how much oil is apportioned to the area and because in a referendum scheduled for 2011, Abyei’s residents are likely to vote to join Southern Sudan’s administration. The GNU rejected the ruling by insisting the commission had exceeded its mandate.
Both sides agreed that an Abyei Arbitration Tribunal, sitting at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, should decide whether this assertion was valid and by extension whether the commission’s boundaries remained in force. They further agreed that if the court found the commission had exceeded its mandate, the court should make a fresh ruling on Abyei’s boundaries based on submissions by both parties.
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Why is it so important to resolve the dispute?
The 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, which ended the first civil war (1956-1972), also included provisions for a referendum among the Abyei Ngok Dinka on whether or not to join what was then a semi-autonomous Southern Region. Failure to implement those provisions was a factor in the re-ignition of civil war in the early 1980s.
It has remained a hotbed of tension since the CPA was signed: in May 2008 clashes displaced tens of thousands of people in Abyei and the town was set on fire. Failure to properly implement the Abyei Protocol is likely to exacerbate not only conflict between local communities but also the increasingly strained relations between Khartoum and GOSS.
Abyei lies at the faultline of Sudan. It encapsulates the cultural and livelihoods divide of the country, but at its best could also exemplify peaceful interdependence at the community level. It is a key stronghold of the South’s most powerful ethnic group, the Dinka. It may contain only less than a quarter of the country’s current production, but it is possibly the largest proven reserve over which the rest of Sudan may claim control.