Some people say "Abyei is an oil field, and that is the problem". But Abyei was an issue before oil. In the first Civil War between Khartoum and the South, Abyei was perhaps the earliest flash point of all: the history of that population having been moved from the South to the North, the fact that pogroms against the civilians of Ngok Dinka were happening regularly and, at times, at the instigation of the authorities. That was the history in the earliest of days. And so, Abyei was seriously represented in the Anya-Nya movement, which engaged in conflict with Khartoum all the way up to 1972.
The 10,000-square-kilometer Abyei region is prized by both Sudan and South Sudan for its fertile land and oil reserves. The region currently is under U.N. administration. The area of Abyei, which straddles the border between north and South Sudan, has long been a major flashpoint of political and inter-communal tensions between the region‘s Dinka Ngok population and the northern nomadic Misseriya tribes. The Misseriya migrate southward through Abyei annually to graze their cattle during the dry season, and some have settled in Abyei in recent decades.
One of the most contentious areas, which was excluded in the Technical Border Committee (TBC) mandate, is the Abyei area, located between Northern Bahr al Ghazal, Warrap, and Unity states. Oil was discovered in Abyei in 1979, which escalated tensions between both sides. The Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) was authorized to define the territory, and in 2005 it ruled that the Heglig and Bamboo oil fields fell within Abyei. The North contested the ruling because it placed a significant portion of its oil reserves in the disputed territory. The dispute was later sent to The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. In 2009, PCA redefined the Abyei area and placed Heglig and the Bamboo fields outside of Abyei.
According to the Abyei Protocol, a 2004 agreement between the GoS [Government of Sudan] and the SPLM/A [Sudan People‘s Liberation Movement/Army] to resolve the Abyei conflict, a referendum on the future of Abyei – to decide whether it should be part of Sudan or secede – was to be held at the same time as the South Sudan referendum on 9 January 2011. The referendum was scheduled for January 2011 to determine whether Abyei would join Sudan or South Sudan did not occur because of disagreements over voter eligibility. Although uncertainties over border demarcation and the ownership of Abyei remain, the Heglig and Bamboo fields are considered today to be in Sudan's South Kordofan state.
Sudan insists that large numbers of Misseriya nomads, who spend several months a year grazing cattle in Abyei, are eligible to vote, whereas South Sudan backs the Dinka Ngok‘s demand that only the historical inhabitants of the region (mostly Dinka Ngok) be allowed to vote. Though both parties accepted a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the boundaries of Abyei, the two countries failed to reach agreement on the final border demarcation in the Abyei area.
In 2012 the African Union [AU] called for the establishment of an administration for the disputed border territory, the election of a council, the creation of a police force, and for a referendum commission to be set up, and eventually set a date for the vote, which the pan-African body proposed holding in October 2013. The AU’s Peace and Security Council clearly said no unilateral action should be taken as a way of resolving Abyei or any other issue.
The security situation in Abyei was tenuous in 2013. Tensions between the Ngok Dinka and Messiriya communities escalated following the May 4 killings of the Ngok Dinka paramount chief, Kuol Deng Kuol, one Ethiopian UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) peacekeeper, and 16 Messiriya tribesmen. Violent conflict in 2011 displaced approximately 110,000 civilians from Abyei. During the year the UN estimated 35,000 residents returned to areas south of Bahr el Arab, 22,000 returned to areas north of the Kiir River, and 60,000 remained displaced in Agok, South Sudan. Several humanitarian aid NGOs continued to provide mobile outreach services in Abyei from their bases in South Sudan.
Sudan blocked the implementation of these four things, particularly the referendum commission. Khartoum has repeatedly said it would not allow the proposed referendum for Abyei to go ahead, citing the fact that Misseriya nomads, Sudanese citizens who pass through the disputed territory on their way to watering and grazing grounds for their cattle, would not be eligible to vote. Khartoum is also worried about losing access to yet another oil-producing region after South Sudan won control of most of the once unified country's oil resources when it split from the north in 2011.
In a late October 2013 referendum, members of Abyei's Ngok Dinka tribe voted to join the south. Neither Sudan nor South Sudan has recognized the unofficial referendum, in which the pro-Sudan Misseriya tribe did not take part. The three-day referendum was not sanctioned by either country's government. Referendum organizers say an estimated 65,000 people are registered to cast ballots at the 28 polling places. Officials from both countries have stressed the people of Abyei must decide their nationality through a referendum process backed by the African Union.
On November 25, 2013 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of peacekeepers in the Abyei region that is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. In a unanimous vote, the Council passed a resolution authorizing the force of mostly Ethiopian soldiers to remain in place through 31 May 2014. Abyei was foremost on the list of bones of contention between the two Sudans that have stalled and not moved anywhere, in spite of two sides signing several agreements on a number of issues since South Sudan became independent in July 2011.
The year 2014 was characterized by escalated levels of violence between the two communities, mostly involving cattle raiding. Several humanitarian aid NGOs continued to provide mobile outreach services in Abyei from their bases in South Sudan.
According to the May report by the UN secretary-general on the situation in Abyei, fierce fighting between Misseriya and Ngok Dinka in Abyei killed at least 110 persons (10 Misseriya and 100 South Sudanese) and injured 37 others in March. The Abyei Joint Oversight Committee attributed the fighting to a dispute over rights to the use and ownership of land and other resources.
On June 28, renewed Misserya intratribal fighting between Awlad Omran and Zued in West Kordofan killed at least 80 persons and injured several dozen. The two clans signed a peace agreement on November 19. On November 22, however, clashes between the two clans resumed, and on November 22-26, nearly two hundred persons were killed. On December 7, unidentified assailants shot and killed four Ngok Dinka in Leu village in southeastern Abyei. On December 9, in Mijak, Abyei, unidentified assailants conducted a cattle raid, and killed two Ngok Dinka and injured three.
UNISFA also reported occasional Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) incursions into southern Abyei, including an attempted robbery at a market in Agok on July 20 carried out by SPLA soldiers based in Unity State. On September 13, SPLA deserters set up illegal roadblocks in the south of Abyei and attempted to extort taxes from passing traffic.
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