War reignited in South Sudan on May 19, 2011. The Khartoum regime, which has been building a massive offensive military capability in and around the hotly contested Abyei region for months, used a confusingly reported confrontation on this day to launch a full-scale invasion of Abyei; the regime?s forces now control the entire region, including Abyei town in the far south. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in this and previous military incursions by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its militia proxies; according to Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian observers, tens of thousands of the indigenous Dinka Ngok have fled south to Northern Bahr el Ghazal State. Many are in great peril, especially from dehydration. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, characterized the aftermath of the brutal assault today from Juba (South Sudan): ?There have been horrific reports of looting and burning [in Abyei], there are large numbers of displaced moving south in what [are] by definition dangerous circumstances.?
The UN and United States have, appropriately, condemned the military seizure of land that will belong to the South if a free and fair self-determination referendum for Abyei is ever held, as stipulated in the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But Khartoum is now declaring that Abyei is ?northern? and has always been so?and President Omar al-Bashir today belligerently declared that it always will be. This creates an untenable military confrontation between the heavily armed and equipped SAF, along with their militia allies, and the more modestly armed but highly motivated Sudan People?s Liberation Army (SPLA). Without more robust diplomatic intervention, larger-scale war seems highly likely.
Despite the Abyei Protocol (2004) that was a key part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), despite the findings of the Abyei Boundaries Commission created by the Abyei Protocol, and despite a ?final and binding? ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (2009)?all making clear that the Ngok people of Abyei had the right to join the South?Khartoum is intent on denying this right of self-determination, despite its commitment to all these agreements and findings. It had previously used a variety of means to forestall the self-determination referendum that was scheduled for January 9, 2011; it has now used military force.
There is a key question in understanding recent developments: what intelligence served as the basis for the UN?s swift condemnation of the SPLA for ?criminal acts? at a military confrontation in the village of Dokora (or Dokra) on May 19? Since this attack was immediately made the casus belli for Khartoum?s invasion of Abyei, we need to make sure we understand the precipitating event.
Although we still do not have all the details of the May 19 clash between an SPLA unit and a contingent of some 200 SAF troops under escort by the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan (UNMIS), the following account?from a very well-placed and highly reliable source?has a great deal more plausibility than the account the UN has chosen to act upon. In fact, the authority of the UN narrative is highly suspect.
UN political officials in New York were first informed of the events at Dokora by Secretary Ban Ki-moon?s Special Envoy for Sudan (SGSR), Haile Menkerios of Eritrea. Menkerios has not been particularly effective in this role since he was appointed in February 2010, and has been only fitfully engaged on critical issues. During his relatively brief tenure he has developed a reputation for instinctively siding with Khartoum over Juba.
Menkerios? account of the events of May 19 apparently came exclusively from two SAF officers?in short, representatives of one of the combatant parties. If their account of the events was taken at face value, then the SGSR will have laid the groundwork for an extraordinarily misguided UN condemnation of the SPLA for ?criminal acts,? which in turn provided Khartoum with a plausible casus belli. This is a major diplomatic disaster, although we may expect the UN to close ranks around one of its own, however disastrously consequential his errors.
So what really happened? Several days before the May 19 clash (again, according to a source that is both highly reliable and especially well placed), soldiers from an SPLA ?Joint Integrated Unit? (JIU) were ambushed in Abyei by a Misseriya militia, an attack that left four SPLA soldiers dead. (The ?Joint Integrated Units? of SAF and SPLA forces were created by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement but have never functioned as designed?indeed, they have never really been either ?joint? or ?integrated,? and recently they have become a major irritant between the two armed forces.) There had been a number of attacks on SPLA troops and police prior to this event, and tensions were extremely high.
Following this incident of May 15, the SPLA and SAF agreed that the SAF JIU forces would be stationed further north in Abyei at Goli and another nearby town. The SPLA JIU would be stationed in Dokora in the south of Abyei, several miles north of Abyei town. The parties further agreed that the SAF would escort the SPLA units to their location, and the SPLA would later escort the SAF units to their location.
Immediately prior to the fighting of May 19, the SPLA units began to argue among themselves about the wisdom of escorting the SAF, given the recent attack they had suffered at the hands of SAF-allied Misseriya militia, and the well-known presence of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) militia in Abyei and South Kordofan, and in the town of Goli in particular. At one point a single bullet was fired in the air. Immediately the SAF began to fire on the SPLA with enormously destructive anti-tank weapons (RPG-7s). A number of Dinka Ngok civilians were killed, as were a number of SAF soldiers, when one of their troop-carrying trucks was accidentally hit by one of the RPGs?in short, a case of so-called ?friendly fire.?
This is not the narrative of a ?criminal act? on the part of the SPLA. That SGSR Menkerios would represent the clash to the UN in New York in such terms was deeply irresponsible and extraordinarily consequential. He should be immediately relieved of his position, and a serious evaluation of reporting mechanisms needs to be undertaken as soon as possible.
It also is intensely dismaying that the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, should still be making statements on the basis of the Menkerios account: ?There was an incident on May 19th in which Southern forces attacked a UN convoy [emphasis added] that was carrying Northern soldiers to the town called Goli.?
To be sure, Lyman is firm in his condemnation of Khartoum?s use of the incident to seize all of Abyei militarily, and makes clear that the status quo will not satisfy U.S. demands that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement be fully respected. But Lyman also continues with a narrative that at this point has been very seriously challenged by the SPLM/A political and military leadership. The nature of the ?attack? seems very much in question, and we should not forget that Khartoum, vastly superior in positioned offensive military forces, has clearly been looking for a pretext to launch its invasion of Abyei. Lyman even has gone so far as to claim the SPLM/A has ?apologized? for their actions. They have not, as was confirmed to me on May 24 by senior officials in Juba. Such statements are ultimately a form of deference to Khartoum in the face of extreme, large-scale, and unjustified military actions. Indeed, the regime has begun to embellish upon the consequences of the initial confrontation: the regime?s ambassador to Kenya has declared that 197 SAF troops were killed or missing as a result of the May 19 events?a preposterous exaggeration. According to well-informed senior SPLA commanders, they lost eighteen men and the SAF seven.
A policy of accommodation is not the road to peace, or the basis for compelling a military withdrawal by the regime from Abyei. Indeed, such accommodation convinces the SPLM leadership that they are alone in confronting this military occupation of Abyei?which now includes wholesale looting and burning, as well as violence against civilians, all reminiscent of the brutal May 2008 attack on Abyei town by the infamous SAF 31st Brigade. At the time, the world stood by and simply watched?UNMIS from very close range. History must not repeat itself, or full-scale war will come. This is an extremely dangerous situation that grows more dangerous by the hour.
[For a scalable, highly detailed map of Abyei, click here.]