The Difficult Case of Abyei

Following the relatively peaceful referendum in which the people of South Sudan voted to form their own country and break away from the north, violence has returned to Sudan, particularly in Abyei, the disputed territory straddling north and south.  On May 21st, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) seized control of Abyei. This was a reaction to South Sudanese attacks on North Sudanese troops travelling in Abyei under UN escort. Considered a “flashpoint” region that could trigger renewed war between the north and the south, the recent violence has been viewed with concern by observers of Sudan.

Key Conclusions

Several factors lead the Abyei region to be a source of instability and violence in Sudan. These are:

  • tensions between tribes loyal to the north and the south;
  • face-saving measures by President Bashir in light of the loss of South Sudan,;
  • the use of Abyei as a bargaining chip in other negotiations, such as over oil and border demarcation; and
  • the possible presence of new oil fields in the Abyei region.

Any future mediation effort must take into consideration these factors.


Abyei is a cultural crossroads between north and south that is claimed by both parties. In January, the people of South Sudan voted nearly unanimously to form their own country, which will take effect in July, after a six-month transition period. The people of Abyei were supposed to vote concurrently to determine whether they remain in the north or join the new Republic of South Sudan. The vote never happened because the two parties could not determine eligibility criteria for participation in the referendum.

The status of Abyei has been a source of great tension and violence in recent years and it is the most intractable issue in the conflict between the north and the south (other issues include border demarcation, wealth sharing, and citizenship).

On May 21st, the SAF seized control of Abyei and are currently occupying the territory. This was a reaction to South Sudanese attacks on North Sudanese troops travelling in Abyei under UN escort. South Sudan has said it will not risk war over Abyei, but tensions remain very high.

1) Tribal tensions: The region’s two major tribes, the Ngok-Dinka and the Misseriya, have repeatedly clashed over access to Abyei’s fertile land. The Ngok-Dinka view Abyei as their ancestral homeland and many of the leaders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in the south, come from this tribe. The Misseriya is a migratory tribe allied with the north that passes through Abyei for access to grazing land and water for their cattle.

The inability to agree on eligibility requirements for voting forestalled the Abyei Referendum. The south wanted to exclude the migratory Misseriya, who are loyal to the North, from the vote because they do not reside in Abyei year round. If the Misseriya were allowed to vote, Abyei would stay with the north, since they outnumber the Ngok-Dinka.

2.) Face Saving: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will be remembered by many Sudanese in the north as the man who lost the south. It has weakened him politically within the National Congress Party. Losing Abyei would weaken him further. Bashir may view holding onto Abyei–or at least coming up with an arrangement highly favorable to the north–as a face saving measure.

3.) Bargaining: One expert recently suggested that Bashir views Abyei as a prime bargaining chip. Over the long term, he may not intend to hold onto it, but may be willing to relinquish control of the territory in return for large concessions on oil and borders.

4.) Oil: When the north and south signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, ending the second Sudanese civil war, Abyei produced a quarter of Sudan’s oil. However, in the past several years, oil production in Abyei has dwindled significantly. Nonetheless, some oil is still being produced there. This fact, along with the potential of finding more oil in Abyei, affects the calculations of the parties.

These issues make the stakes in Abyei extremely high. High-level mediation efforts in recent months have produced no results. Meanwhile, civilians on the ground bear the impact. The recent seizure of Abyei has had grave consequences, with close to 100,000 persons displaced and the number of reports of violence against civilians increasing.