The Abyei region, disputed by northern and southern Sudan, is to be demilitarised and patrolled by Ethiopian troops, operating under a United Nations Security Council mandate. The agreement comes after negotiations in the Ethiopian capital, following the invasion of Abyei by northern forces on 21 May 2011. In a departure from its usual policy of non-involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries, China – the largest investor in the Sudanese oil industry – called upon both sides to settle the dispute peacefully.
Under an agreement concluded in Addis Ababa and announced on 20 June by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, some 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeeping troops will be deployed to the disputed Sudanese region of Abyei. Upon their arrival, Khartoum is to withdraw its troops, as is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the southern Sudanese government-in-waiting.
The Addis Ababa agreement establishes temporary administrative arrangements for what is known as the Abyei Area. Under the agreement, the two Sudans agreed that the Abyei Area Administration will comprise a Chief Administrator, a Deputy Chief Administrator and five heads of departments. The Chief Administrator is to be nominated by the SPLM and agreed to by Khartoum, while the Deputy Chief Administrator will be nominated by Khartoum with the agreement of the SPLM.
The largest investor in Sudan’s oil industry, China has traditionally had warm relations with the Khartoum government. As southern independence approaches, Beijing is reaching out to the south – where most of the Sudanese oil fields are located – and has called for north and south to end the violence.
Abyei is thought to contain significant oil deposits and has long been disputed by north and south. The latest agreement largely mirrors a previous temporary arrangement, the 2008 Abyei Roadmap Agreement. Whether future violence can be avoided in Abyei remains uncertain; the use of proxy militias cannot be ruled out. Civilians displaced by the recent fighting are reluctant to return, questioning whether the 2011 agreement will offer any more security than the 2008 version.
The looming independence of southern Sudan, now just two weeks away, very likely precipitated the invasion, as the north sought to assert control over Abyei. In a related development, the Sudanese Government rejected the proposal of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to extend by three months the mandate of the United Nations mission in Sudan (UNMIS). The UNMIS mandate is due to expire on 9 July – the date of formal Southern Sudanese independence – and Khartoum wants the peacekeepers to leave its territory on that day. The UN is reportedly considering whether to relocate the 10,400-strong force to the south after 9 July.
Leighton G. Luke
FDI Indian Ocean Research Programme