The Search for a Settlement in Abyei


1956 – Sudan gains independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt
2002 – The Machakos Protocol is signed, leaving the Abyei region in the North
2005 – Sudan’s Second Civil War ends and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed
2008 – Abyei is attacked and burned, up to 50,000 people are driven from their homes
2011 – A referendum is held in the South voting overwhelmingly for independence, Abyei is excluded. UNIFSA is established to keep peace in the region.
2013 – The South Sudan Civil War begins
2013-23 – Periodic violence continues in Abyei, exploding in 2022 with inter-tribal violence over land and water rights
2023 – Violence erupts in Khartoum, affecting the entire region

Map of Abyei Region



Arguably the most contentious individual region in the Sudan and South Sudan is the region of Abyei. Both countries claim rightful ownership of the area, and its residents have been caught up in numerous cycles of violence for decades as a result of a series of problems that are often out of their control. The 2023 violence between warring parties in Sudan is only the most recent of a long series of conflicts that have affected the region, directly and indirectly. This article will examine the various efforts that have been made in the post-colonial period to establish lasting peace in Abyei.

Background on Colonial-era Sudan

For decades following its independence from colonialism, Sudan went through a great deal of internal turmoil. The country had an unusual colonial situation in that from 1899 to 1956, it was still a united country but was ruled as a condominium known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. What this meant was that the northern part of the country was ruled by Egypt, and the southern part by Great Britain.

Because of this dual reign, the northern and southern parts of the country started to develop distinctly different identities. And beyond the colonial situation, there were many diverse tribes that had lived in different regional configurations since before the colonies even began. By the time the south voted for independence in 2011, disagreements remained about some of the border regions and what their rightful jurisdiction should be following the split between the north and the south.

Historical Overview of the Abyei Region

The Abyei region is in the unfortunate geographic position of straddling the line between Sudan and South Sudan almost in the middle. That both sides believe it to be their rightful territory is understandable, and it makes the question of jurisdiction resolution all the thornier. Abyei is disputed for numerous reasons. The most well-known source of dispute has to do with its being a major source of oil. However, there are actually a number of resources being fought over, including farmland, pasture, and water.

Even before South Sudan gained independence in 2012, there was internal disagreement about what the borders of the Abyei region should be, and who should have rightful access to it. In 2002, the Machakos Protocol demarcated what was to be considered Southern Sudan, leaving Abyei within the Northern territory. This became a source of contention, and leaders of the Southern People’s Liberation Army pressured the central government in Khartoum to allow Abyei’s eventual status to be determined by referendum, along with the rest of the South.

In 2005, at the end of the then-united Sudan’s Second Civil War and as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was drawn up at its conclusion, an agreement called the Abyei Protocol was drawn up with the assistance of US Presidential envoy John Danforth. This protocol called for a commission that would demarcate the territory for the region, and it was the boundaries of this territory that were to be voted on as part of the proposed 2011 Referendum for Independence.

However, due to internal disputes about how the process would be decided, the territory to be voted on was never defined, and the whole region was therefore left out of the referendum. A major sticking point was dispute between the two largest groups in the area, the Misseriya (a semi-nomadic tribe who travel through the area only seasonally) and the Dinka, who are permanent residents of Abyei. The Dinka objected to the Misseriyas’ claim to the territory because of their non-permanent residency, and therefore a dispute over the word “resident” became intractable and prevented the demarcation from taking place.

In the years immediately following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, large-scale violence erupted in Abyei between the Sudan Armed Forces, which represented the government based in Khartoum (the capital of what was then the Northern part of the country) and the Southern People’s Liberation Army, which represented a separatist faction from the South. In 2008, more than half the homes in the region’s capital, Abyei town, were burned to the ground and up to 50,000 people were driven from their homes.

Hague Court Decision of 2009

It was only in 2009 that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague stepped in and defined a territory for the Abyei region that remains in place – despite being disputed – to this day. Although the two sides agreed to allow an international court to make a decision, it was clear even beforehand that any decision would disappoint one or more of the factions involved.

In the opinion of the primarily Southern-based Dinka, the biggest problem with The Hague’s boundaries is that it leaves the valuable Heglig and Bamboo oil fields in the North. The Misseriya – who are primarily residents of the North – were unhappy with the agreement because it gave what they considered to be valuable pastoral land to the South.

Aftermath of the 2011 Referendum and its Implications for Abyei

Following the 2011 Referendum on Independence, in which residents of the South voted almost overwhelmingly for independence from the North, Abyei remained a major sticking point for all of the parties involved. Then-President Omar Bashir, who represented the government of Khartoum, said that he would not recognize the new country if it laid claim to the Abyei region. Meanwhile, the new Southern government had already drafted a constitution in which Abyei was a part of the new state.

Another round of violence was then quelled initially by an African Union agreement to establish a Common Border Zone between the North and the South, which would be demilitarized and monitored by the UN. The UN Security Council established an interim security force for the region on June 27, 2011 known as UNIFSA (the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei). UNIFSA maintains a presence in Abyei until today, although violence has continued among multiple different factions.

South Sudan Independence and the Beginning of Civil War

South Sudan gained independence on July 9, 2011. Not long afterwards – on December 15, 2013 – the new country descended into civil war. It almost immediately became apparent that the new country was not prepared to govern itself, and two primary factions – one led by the new President, Salva Kiir, and the other led by new Vice President, Riek Mashar – broke into a nationwide conflict that has not yet ended.

The civil war has its roots in tribal warfare specific to the two major tribes of the South, with Kiir representing the Dinka (although a different sub-group from those in the Abyei area), and Mashar representing the Nuer tribe. Although the civil war doesn’t center around either the tribal issues in Abyei, or the Sudan-South Sudan question, it has proven to be yet another circumstantial problem that has prevented effective peace making from taking place.

Although a unilateral referendum had taken place earlier in 2013, held by the Abyei Referendum High Committee, the mostly northern Misseriya boycotted it. They claimed that the vote was biased in favor of the Ngok Dinka, and the referendum was not accepted by Khartoum.

2022 Violence and Continued Attempts to Establish Peace

Since 2011, Abyei has been in a fragile situation with its status still unresolved, and there have been periodical bouts of violence every year. Since the beginning of last year, the level of violence both between the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka, as well as between the Twic and the Ngok Dinka, has skyrocketed. In addition to the pastoral claims laid by the Misseriya, there are disputes between the Twic and Ngok Dinka over water rights in relation to the Kiir river. Disagreements over land and water rights have been building upon one another.

By May of 2022, the South Sudanese government established a buffer zone in the region in an attempt to quell the violence. This zone soon proved ineffective, though, and violence soon broke out again. 2022 saw repeated attempts by the government and UNIFSA to end the violence by different means, all of them ultimately in vain.

2023 Violence in Khartoum and its Effect on Abyei

Although there have been efforts made recently by the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to improve relations with one another – including talks about joint agreements in oil production, as well as deploying forces along the border to ensure peace in border regions –  the issue of Abyei’s status has remained outstanding.

This year, another series of events in the region that have again prevented peace talks from moving forward has been the violence that has broken out within Sudan itself between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, warring militias that are vying for power in the Khartoum government. Estimates say that 1.4 million people have been displaced as a result of this year’s conflict, adding to the several million already displaced in the country for multiple other reasons.

This is another situation that, although not involving the peoples of Abyei directly, surrounds the area and exacerbates existing tensions there. The situation has destabilized the country as a whole, and it threatens to spill over into other regions.

Effecting Real Change Will Be Complicated

Even while the country’s attention is primarily focused on warring militias in the North, UNIFSA continues to encounter local problems in Abyei. Officials report continued skirmishes between Twic and Ngok Dinka, and having to confiscate weapons from both sides.

UNIFSA is being reconfigured into a multinational peacekeeping force with over 3000 military personnel. However, monitoring mechanisms are still lacking, and until full-scale operations are put in place there remains little hope for a permanent cessation of hostilities.

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