May 26, 2011

Abyei Drifting Towards Worst Case Scenario

Despite the UN’s mobilization and mediation efforts through Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the situation in Abyei is looking increasingly dire on the ground and within the national context. At least 30,000 people are estimated to have fled the territory, with death tolls ranging from 68 to 100+. Both the North and South accuse each other of provoking another civil war.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of the nascent Southern Sudan, issued a reassuring statement that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), “We will not go back to war. It will not happen.” Unfortunately this is about the only good news.

On Monday we analyzed how the Northern Sudanese government patiently eyed its time to strike into Abyei. By tempting the SPLA into infiltrating Abyei and awaiting July 9th, when Southern Sudan is scheduled to declare its formal independence, the North encouraged an artificial pretext to “cleanse” the territory of an estimated 2,500 units. UN officials were in the process of negotiating a mutual pullout when a UN-escorted Northern force was ambushed by unidentified assailants. Both accuse each other of staging the attack.

Either way, UN ambassador Susan Rice conceded on Thursday that the North’s invasion of Abyei territory and the town itself is looking increasingly premeditated. Another mystery still unresolved is the use of proxy militias. Resolving the crisis, already an extreme task, now needs the help of a miracle.

“The situation in and around Abyei remains very, very volatile," said Elizabeth Byrs, spokesperson for the UN's humanitarian office (OCHA), citing reports from staff on the ground. "The Sudan armed forces (SAF) maintain their presence in the town and the presence of a large number of Misseriya militia has been reported.

According to the AP, “The nomadic and Arab Misseriya, historically allied to Khartoum, have rejected allegations that their militias are involved in the unrest.”

As we also observed from the North’s aggressive rhetoric, President Omar al-Bashir has no intention of leaving Abyei without a favorable political agreement. The territory failed to meet the CPA’s requirements and was withheld from the January 9th referendum; a special referendum was to be held sometime this year. The North wanted to interrupted both Abyei and the South’s political cycles, first destabilizing the environment and then demanding new negotiations on its terms.

Rice confirmed these fears during a conference call on her latest African trip: "There's real concern that the government of Sudan may have taken a decision to continue to occupy Abyei for its own political advantage for an indefinite period.”

Abyei’s situation is so tightly gridlocked that General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, chief mediator of the CPA, proposed an independent state on Tuesday. Although the idea was widely greeted as impractical, his admission reveals the depths of Abyei’s crisis. Perhaps it will untie itself before July 9th - an invaded Abyei may not even affect the South’s independence day.

Murphy’s Law shouldn’t be tempted though, especially in Sudan.

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