In late May 2011, the Sudanese Armed Forces seized the contested border region of Abyei, claimed by both north and south. On June 20, the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army, the ruling party in the south, agreed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to demilitarize the region and allow a peacekeeping force of 4,200 Ethiopian military personnel and some 50 civilian personnel from assorted countries to bring stability to Abyei. The United Nations Security Council authorized the force, UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), for an initial period of six months. The force is mandated under resolution 1990 to monitor the redeployment of Sudanese Armed Forces from Abyei, secure the region from unauthorized incursions, protect civilians and humanitarian personnel, train police, protect oil infrastructure, conduct demining, and assist with the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The introduction of peacekeepers will create political space for the parties to negotiate but does not resolve the fundamental issues dividing them with respect to Abyei.
Ethiopia’s contribution of this peacekeeping force – as well as its broader engagement in mediating the conflict between Juba and Khartoum – can be seen as part of a broader strategy to maintain stability in its backyard.
The fact that the military composition of UNISFA consists entirely of Ethiopian peacekeepers operating under a UN Security Council mandate could create tensions down the line concerning lines of authority.
The agreement between Khartoum and Juba to allow peacekeepers into Abyei will temporarily calm tensions between Sudan and South Sudan. This is undoubtedly a positive development. However, the parties are still no closer to resolving the final status of Abyei than they were before. There is a risk that the introduction of the UNISFA will take pressure off the parties to make hard decisions on Abyei. Over the longer term, the negotiations over Abyei could become frozen, especially if UNISFA brings stability to the region and its mandate is extended beyond the initial six-month authorization.
Ethiopia has strong economic and political reasons for desiring stability in Sudan and South Sudan. This may be why it is spearheading UNISFA and why it has consistently hosted negotiations between the parties over the past year in Addis Ababa on the critical issues dividing them. As the International Crisis Group has noted, Ethiopia shares a large border to its west with both Sudan and South Sudan, has considerable trade relations with both countries, and recognizes that if a large scale war erupts again between north and south, it could engulf the region. Ethiopia is particularly intent on avoiding such a scenario, especially given its ongoing tensions with Eritrea, its recent failed military campaign in Somalia (late 2006 – early 2009), and its own problems with insurrectionist movements in the Ogaden and Oromia regions.
As an Ethiopian force operating under a UN mandate, there could be tensions down the line regarding the management and direction of the operation. Ethiopia is not a neutral party in Abyei; it has strong strategic interests with regard to Sudan and South Sudan. There is a clear risk that UNISFA will be guided more by decisions made by the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa than by the UN Security Council in New York.