Abyei Dispute

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Abyei is an area between South Sudan and Sudan granted "special administrative status" by the 2004 Abyei Protocol as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War.[1] During the transitional period from January 2005 to July 2011 - at the end of which South Sudan gained independence - Abyei was being run by a joint administration between the government of Sudan and South Sudan's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).[2]

As of mid-2012, both South Sudan and Sudan claimed Abyei and the dispute over control of the region remained unresolved.[3]


Though often described as "oil-rich", the BBC wrote in May 2011, most of the oil fields near the South Sudan-Sudan frontier now fall outside Abyei's borders after the 2009 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in The Hague; since then issues in the area have been more ethnic than economic.[4]

Boundaries and population

The Abyei area has a surface area of about 10,460 square kilometers.[5] The PCA concluded that the northern boundary of the Abyei area runs along latitude 10°10’00”N, from longitude 27°50’00”E to longitude 29°00’00”E; the southern boundary runs along the Kordofan – Bahr el-Ghazal – Upper Nile boundary as it was defined at Sudan's independence on 1 January 1956; the eastern boundary runs along longitude 29°00'00"E, from latitude 10°10’00”N south to the Kordofan – Upper Nile boundary, also as it was defined at independence; the western boundary runs along longitude 27°50'00"E, from latitude 10°10’00”N south to the Kordofan – Darfur boundary, as defined at independence in 1956. The PCA ruling stressed, however, that the "transfer of sovereignty in the context of a boundary delimitation should not be construed to extinguish traditional rights [eg. grazing rights] to the use of land."[6]

The UN Mission in South Sudan estimated Abyei area's population at between 80,000 and 100,000 in August 2010, stating at the time that the government believed another 75% to be displaced.[7] A UN spokeswoman estimated Abyei town's population at around 20,000, Reuters reported in May 2011.[8]

Role of oil

Oil played a key role in the dispute over Abyei once oil production rose quickly starting in 1999. By 2003, more than one quarter of Sudan’s oil production was coming from Abyei.[9] One of the key features of the Abyei Protocol was an agreement on the division of Abyei’s oil revenues between the Sudanese national government in Khartoum (50%), the government of South Sudan (42%), the region of Bahr el Ghazal (2%), the state of Western Kordofan (2%), and the tribal groups Ngok Dinka (2%) and Misseriya (2%).[10]

Since then, however, production at all the fields within Abyei has begun to decline, and Abyei’s relative importance to Sudan’s oil sector has also declined, according to ECOS, writing in April 2008. From over a quarter of all oil production in 2003, ECOS estimated the region's share at less than 8 percent in 2007.[9] The PCA ruling in 2009 largely delinked the issue of oil wealth-sharing from Abyei’s boundaries by placing the majority of oil producing areas and oil infrastructure outside the Abyei area, according to Concordis International. The ruling placed the major Heglig oil fields outside Abyei, while the Diffra fields remained within.[11]

Ethic conflicts

Located between the Bahr al Ghazal region and Warrap state in northwestern South Sudan and the Sudanese state of South Kordofan, the area has traditionally been inhabited by agro-pastoralist groups and also hosts a number of migration routes for nomadic groups. The discovery of oil in the region in 1979 lent Abyei increased strategic importance, and soon thereafter national politics interacted with local disputes to further entrench divides between the communities along North-South lines.[11]

As of mid-2012, both countries harbored strong ties to the region. The Misseriya, a Sudanese group, take their cattle through the region every year; meanwhile the Dinka Ngok, the permanent residents of the area, want Abyei to be part of South Sudan, according to the BBC.[3]

Fighting and displacement

The Abyei conflict has in recent years been characterized by flare-ups of heavy fighting and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

After a three-year stalemate following the signing of the CPA in 2005, for example, the dispute erupted into violence in May 2008, when Sudanese armed forces razed Abyei town and forcibly displaced an estimated 60,000 people - the majority of the town’s population. Following weeks of negotiations, representatives of the NCP and South Sudan's SPLM agreed to refer the boundary dispute to international arbitration.[12]

Violence flared up again after the referendum on South Sudanese independence on 9 January 2011. The SPLM and the Sudanese army clashed the following May, after which Sudan's forces gained full control of most of the Abyei area, including Abyei town.[13] The fighting, which according to the Sudan Tribune began after a Sudanese convoy was attacked by South Sudanese forces, resulted in the displacement of over 100,000 people, including saw the majority of people in South Sudan’s Warrap, Unity and Northern/Western Bahr el Ghazal states. The fighting also saw Abyei’s Dinka Ngok people flee into South Sudan. According to the UN peacekeeping force in Abyei (UNISFA), by 17 June 2012 a total of 8,936 people had returned to their places of origin in Abyei north of the River Kiir/Bahr el Arab, while 1,072 had reached Abyei town.[14]

Ongoing negotiations

A referendum on Abyei's status was supposed to be held simultaneously with the January 2011 referendum which led to the independence of South Sudan, but was postponed due to differences between the NCP and the SPLM over who has the right to vote in the referendum. The NCP said the Misseriya tribe has the right to vote, while the SPLM insisted that only the Dinka Nkok tribe has that right, according to news agency Xinhuanet.[13]

As of July 2012, delegates from South Sudan and Sudan were negotiating the status of Abyei, along with many other unresolved issues, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The negotiators agreed to terms for a joint military observation committee for Abyei, news agency All Africa reported on 15 July 2012. Still, commenting on the peace talks, the African Union Commission called the progress of negotiations as a whole "slow and uneven".[15]


  1. "Sudan: Protocol on the resolution of Abyei conflict" Relief Web, 26 May 2004.
  2. "Abyei: An Ongoing Dilemma" Sudan Vision, April 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Abyei crisis: UN confirms Sudan troop pullout" BBC News Africa, 30 May 2012.
  4. "Sudan: Why Abyei is crucial to north and south" BBC News Africa, 23 May 2011.
  5. "Sudan Referendum: Abyei - one tiny issue yet unresolved" PanaPress.com, 18 January 2011.
  6. "PCA Press Release - Abyei Arbitration: Final Award Rendered" Permanent Court of Arbitration, 22 July 2009.
  7. "Briefing Paper on Abyei Area" UN Mission in South Sudan, 5 August 2010.
  8. "North Sudan seizes disputed Abyei, thousands flee" Reuters, 22 May 2011.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Sudan's Oil Industry" European Coalition on Oil in Sudan, April 2008.
  10. "More Than A Line: Sudan's North-South Border" Concordis International, September 2010.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "More Than A Line: Sudan's North-South Border" Concordis International, September 2010.
  12. "Abyei: Sudan’s Next Test" Enough Project, July 2009.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Sudanese army controls Abyei following heavy fighting" Xinhuanet, 22 May 2011.
  14. "Abyei displaced make "cautious return" after fleeing in 2011" Sudan Tribune, 23 June 2012.
  15. "Sudan: 'Slow and Uneven' Progress As Bashir and Kiir Meet in Addis" All Africa, 30 May 2012.