Tim Flatman exclusive: The new threat of war in Abyei, South Sudan
This is a guest exclusive by Tim Flatman. It appears here first but we encourage cross-posting given the urgency of the situation.
Yesterday Sudanese Armed Forces took control of Abyei town on the borders of North & South Sudan, after two days of aerial bombardment and ground fighting in the areas surrounding it.
President Bashir has dissolved the Abyei administration in a congratulatory broadcast. Tens of thousands of Southern civilians were successfully evacuated in the morning, and escorted over a bridge leading towards the South yesterday evening, but are still vulnerable and waiting for further instructions under trees with no adequate shelter or food. The number of civilians killed or injured in the attacks is unknown.
This was described by the US as a “disproportionate and irresponsible” response to an incident on Thursday where SAF forces withdrawing from Abyei and escorted by UNMIS soldiers were attacked, allegedly by SPLA forces. SPLA deny responsibility.
If there was any involvement, it is likely a rash decision was made at an intermediate military level without the consent or knowledge of political actors who understood that the North was waiting for an opportunity to respond in this way, partly in the hope of disrupting a UN Security Council meeting scheduled for Monday which it resolutely opposed.
It should also be noted that the North attempted to take control of Abyei on May 1st, before the alleged incident on Thursday. At first they managed to cover this up and present action as an authorised mission, as many of the soldiers were wearing Joint Integrated Unit uniforms. However, evidence released by the Sudan Tribune website later exposed the cover-up. In any case, it is to be noted that Southerners did not respond to previous incidents by bombing civilians and attacking towns in the way that the NCP regime has over the last two days.
I have had conversations with Southerners last night and this morning who want to make an immediate response. Before I get accused of warmongering, I’d like to point out that I would prefer a delay to give the international community chance to try and persuade the North to withdraw before the South is forced to respond. However, I think it’s important to set out the Southern case so that everyone can understand the logic of an immediate response and see why response does not constitute aggression.
Southerners argue that waiting before a response will give the Government of Sudan the chance to entrench their position and make their forces more difficult to remove at a later date, increasing the amount of blood that will be shed in the process. They believe that no-one will persuade Bashir to remove his troops anyhow, describing him as “intoxicated”. They argue that since he has dissolved Abyei Administration (arguably illegally, since it is under the authority of the Presidency, which until July 9th legally includes Vice-President of Sudan and President of South Sudan Salva Kiir who would not sign off on any such proposal) he is likely to try and create his own administration there, which would complicate matters.
Southerners will not recognise the decision, and argue it will make no difference as budget as already been allocated from the Government of South Sudan to allow Abyei Administration to function once they have taken control of the area again. They argue that tens of thousands of displaced civilians are still in a vulnerable position and there is no guarantee that SAF will not advance further South, so they need to be in a position to protect their people.
They also argue that the international community will not put sufficient pressure on the North to get them to withdraw. They argue that recent agreements the international community has facilitated have been biased towards the North. In particular, the Kadugli Agreements, signed in January, are described as “dead and buried”.
These aimed to demilitarise the area but gave the North a strategic advantage, allowing them to withdraw heavy artillery to areas with quicker access to Abyei town than the South, giving the North a military advantage in initial skirmishes and thus assisting them take control of Abyei town. As the Kadugli Agreements are now “dead and buried”, future agreements should be made solely on the basis of the Abyei Protocol and the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s verdict at the Hague in 2009.
Southerners also argue that they cannot trust the international community to intervene since after a similar incident where SAF invaded Abyei town in 2008 UNMIS promised that this would not happen again, but UNMIS have been similarly unable to prevent this incident or the burning of dwellings in Abyei that is apparently taking place as I type.
This is compelling logic to anyone familiar with the dynamics of the situation. So is there any chance at all of persuading the South to delay a response to allow for some international arbitration to take place, and should we be attempting to persuade them to do this?
A period of a few days grace would demonstrate that a forceful response by the South is a last resort and that even though they do not believe the international community is willing or able to apply the kind of pressure necessary to get the North to withdraw, they are willing to give them the chance. It would also allow the UNSC to meet with the Dinka Ngok (Southerners who are the vast majority of the permanent residents of Abyei and the only residents of Abyei town) as planned on May 23rd, even if this meeting takes place in a different location from originally planned.
But these arguments are unlikely to be compelling enough on their own. If the international community wants to get the South to delay a response and avoid an all-out conflict in the region, they need to recognise what the Southerners recognise: that Bashir is pragmatic and will only respond to threats to the territorial integrity and economic viability of Sudan.
Therefore they should make it clear to Bashir that if he does not withdraw troops within an agreed timescale, they will not condemn a Southern response which drives those troops out of the area. Also, that the international community understands that fortifying the Northern position or creating a new Abyei administration would only increase the likelihood of the South responding more quickly. Fearful that the international community would give the South carte-blanche to take control of Abyei, Bashir’s pragmatism would then cause him to withdraw troops and genuinely seek a negotiated solution.
I cannot see any other incentive for the South to wait, other than this kind of international sympathy and co-operation.