Security Talks Bring Abyei Back from the Brink of War

KADUGLI, Sudan – Following politics in Sudan can be as surreal as an M. C. Escher illustration. Just when you think you have a good grounding in the issues, the floor becomes the ceiling and your whole perception takes a 180-degree jolt.

Take Ahmed Haroun. The 46-year-old governor of South Kordofan state is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur. While he was the minister of state for humanitarian affairs, he allegedly masterminded the mass rape and murder of thousands of Darfuris. He also recruited and funded the notorious Janjaweed militia that killed on behalf of the government.

Here in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, Haroun is playing the part of peacemaker. The crisis in Abyei was pushed to the brink last week when Misseriya militias attacked a southern Sudanese police outpost resulting in more than 100 dead on both sides.

Abyei has been a festering problem since the 2005 peace agreement was signed ending Sudan’s 22-year civil war. Residents of the region along the frontier between the North and South were supposed to also have a referendum on January 9 to decide if they would join southern Sudan or remain with the North in the case of southern secession, but an inability to agree on some of the most fundamental issues (ie: the make-up of the referendum commission) kept preparations for the vote from getting off the ground. Talks to resolve Abyei’s future were suspended indefinitely in October after both sides failed to agree on the definition of an Abyei resident.

The region, rich in pastureland, has traditionally been inhabited by Ngok Dinka, who align themselves with southern Sudan. Nomadic Arab Misseriya cattle herders migrate through the region each year. They have long been armed by the North and used as proxy fighters.

As clashes raged in Abyei last week, Haroun, encouraged by a few key diplomats, called tribal chiefs from the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya to his shaded governor’s compound in Kadugli to discuss a truce. On Monday, the meetings took on more importance as ministers for both the North and South governments shuttled in to solidify the security talks.

Interior Minister Ibrahim Hamid, Governor Haroun, and a handful of Sudan Armed Forces generals represented the North. The South sent GOSS Interior Minister Gier Aluong, Deng Arop, the chief administrator for Abyei, and SPLA commanders.

Before the closed door meeting, the two parties made statements in an ornately appointed assembly hall.

“We are here to complete the peace,” Haroun said. “We care about the people of Abyei. We want to discuss how to defend the land between the South and South Kordofan.”

For the South, the most immediate issue has been protecting displaced people who are returning from the North. Columns of vulnerable returnees have been attacked by Misseriya militias in recent weeks.

“All of us have heard about the fighting along the border,” GOSS Interior Minister Gier said. “It has been a giant concern for the government in Juba. I believe the government in South Kordofan tried its best to control the fighting.”

After the opening statements, the principals sequestered themselves in a conference room for six hours. When they finally emerged, they read a list of four resolutions:

1. The 300 southern police that currently occupy the northern frontier of Abyei – and recently defended it from attack – must withdraw. They will be replaced by two Joint Integrated Units of northern and southern forces.

2. The roads leading through Abyei from the North to the South will be opened and patrolled so that returning southerners can have safe passage.

3. The Misseriya will have access to a corridor of grazing land through Abyei on which to herd their cattle during the coming rainy season.

4. All Misseriya and Ngok Dinka civilians and paramilitary forces must be disarmed.

Chief Administrator Arop was pleased with the outcome, but he said that disarmament is the key point in the deal.

“If you disarm them, you will have peace,” he said to Enough. (Here's the video.) “If disarmament is not done, then you will have problems.”

Diplomats who witnessed the meeting cautioned that it is too early to start the backslapping.

“The key to a peace deal is in the implementation,” a senior U.N. official said.

Indeed, back in Abyei, not much has changed. Roads from the North are still closed as evidenced by the lack of goods coming into Abyei town. Food and fuel are scarce in the local markets. Movement outside of Abyei town is restricted. The area still feels tense.

For Haroun’s part, he put on a good show in Kadugli, talking peace and smiling and joking with his southern counterparts over a large dinner of chicken, beef stew, potatoes, rice, and flat bread.

Commenting on Ahmed Haroun’s role in soothing Abyei tensions, Enough’s John Prendergast said: “Haroun was indicted as a war criminal by the ICC because of his role in organizing the Janjaweed. Similarly, in Southern Kordofan, he oversees the Misseriya militias and is a primary organizer and recruiter. So he has authority because of his ability to be a spoiler. He can make or break the peace based on which way the wind is blowing for the ruling party.”

After the Kadugli negotiations ended, in the thin light of dusk, Haroun visited a camp for returnees headed south. He told them that their journey was almost over, that peace is on the way. The southerners cheered and sang his praises. They handed him their babies to hold.

All this, for a man who some said was sent to turn Abyei into another Darfur. Surreal indeed.