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Abyei: From a Shared Past to a Contested Future

Policy and Practice Brief 7

The Sudanese region of Abyei currently sits at the centre of a conflict between the north and south of what was Africa’s largest state.While analysts have described the situation in Abyei as “an intractable conflict”, this policy brief examines the current impasse, its historical context and the options available for breaking the deadlock and forestalling further conflict.

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The stalemate in the region has shown itself capable of pushing the two sides to full scale conflict as witnessed on 21 May 2011 when the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) launched a coordinated attack on South Sudanese military personnel in the contested region of Abyei. Sudanese President General Omar Bashir also unilaterally dissolved the joint North-South Abyei Administration; in addition to being unconstitutional the move serves only the further inflames tensions in the region. Khartoum claimed the assault was in retaliation for the killing of 22 SAF soldiers by South Sudanese military forces in the region. The current crisis emerges in large part from the intransigence of the parties and the inability of the international community to convince the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that they can prevent further reneging on agreed issues by the National Congress Party (NCP). Additionally the non-implementation of Abyei Protocol, the Abyei Borders Commission (ABC) report and now the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling- undermine other key aspects of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and set a worrying precedent for future agreements. This has created great suspicion and insecurity on the part of the SPLM.This insecurity has changed the trajectory of the Abyei conflict from a negotiation over shared rights to a zero sum game. Senior SPLM officials have expressed concern that representatives of the United States government are pressuring the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) to accept the possible partition of Abyei. High ranking SPLM officials also believe that this is the option increasingly favoured by the African Union and its High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) headed by ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki. While partition of the contested region may appear at first glance to be an optimum decision, the prospect of such a settlement has been deeply counter-productive, working to convince the Government of the Sudan (GoS) in Khartoum that it has more to gain through diplomatic intransigence and continuing turmoil in Abyei than the prompt and full implementation of the PCA ruling on the region as handed down on the 22 July 2009.

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