When the history of Sudan’s third civil war is written, most will judge that the precipitating event occurred on May 21, when the Khartoum regime seized the contested border area of Abyei. It is a terminus a quo in some ways similar to the Bor Mutiny of May 1983, which began twenty-two years of unfathomably destructive civil war and came to an end only with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Twenty-eight years ago, then-President Jaafer Nimeri sent Colonel John Garang to quell an uprising of 500 soldiers with grievances against the government in Khartoum, in a town in Jonglei State, South Sudan. Garang, however, had prepared the groundwork for the mutiny, which represented above all his broadly supported resistance to Khartoum’s Arabizing and Islamizing of the South’s African and primarily Christian populations. He emerged as the rebellion’s charismatic and visionary leader, and remained so for more than two decades. Eventually his military and diplomatic efforts were crowned with a peace agreement that, if upheld, offered as much as any negotiations could reasonably yield the South.
Indeed, many figures in the Khartoum regime and military establishment felt that too much had been offered. And many observers, including this one, felt that only the most robust efforts to see the agreement—which guaranteed the South a vote on self-determination in January 2011—implemented could avert future war. This included implementation of the CPA’s critical Abyei Protocol, which allowed the Abyei region to determine whether it was part of the South or the North.
The Bush administration, which can rightly claim the CPA as a foreign policy achievement, squandered its diplomatic triumph by failing to commit to its implementation. The CPA allowed for a six-year “interim period” before the Abyei and South Sudan independence referenda, presumably based on the conviction outside Sudan that either the people of the South would vote to stay unified with the North—an absurd delusion, even at the time—or some sort of vaguely satisfactory resolution of “outstanding issues” like Abyei could be fashioned. None of this casual optimism was warranted, and when the Obama administration finally became engaged on Sudan in early 2009, time was running short: national elections (a predictable sham) were scheduled for the following year, and the Southern self-determination referendum was scheduled for January 9, 2011. The inevitable vote in favor of secession was to lead to independence on July 9.
The Obama administration (and in particular Obama’s former special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration) has shown its incompetence in Sudan more than once during past two-and-a-half years. But none of its failures will prove as consequential as its attempt to side-step the Abyei referendum. Beginning in the fall of 2010, the administration sought by any means necessary to ensure that the southern self-determination referendum took place as scheduled, to avoid renewed war between North and South. It “de-coupled” the ongoing atrocities in Darfur from its central negotiations with Khartoum and abandoned any meaningful commitment to the Abyei Protocol, perhaps the most contentious of all issues resolved during final CPA negotiations in Naivasha, Kenya in 2004.
The protocol represented a compromise for both sides, guaranteeing a self-determination referendum to the “residents” of Abyei based on borders defined by the Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC), which the protocol established. In July 2005 the ABC—composed of distinguished students of Sudan chosen by both sides—submitted its report to regime president Omar al-Bashir, who promptly signaled that he would not accept it. In May 2008, after the regime’s regular and militia forces largely destroyed Abyei’s capital town, the Government of South Sudan agreed to a “final and binding” determination of borders by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, since it was clear to them that the international community would offer no other help in resolving the issue. The findings of the PCA, more favorable in several respects to Khartoum than to the South, were released in July 2009. But Khartoum soon reneged on this “final and binding” resolution, too.
By the fall of 2010, Khartoum had refused to permit a self-determination referendum in Abyei that did not include the migratory Misseriya Arabs, who grazed their cattle seasonally in Abyei. This was the first and only time that Misseriya “residency” in Abyei had been raised as an issue. It was clearly a ploy, but one the Obama administration fell for. Senior officials, including Hillary Clinton and Gration, urged both sides to “compromise” even further on the terms of a “final” Abyei settlement, as if there had been no compromise in the original protocol, or later in the finding of the PCA. Senator John Kerry declared that the North–South peace agreement shouldn’t be held hostage to a “few hundred square miles” of territory (in fact, Abyei is over 4,000 square miles in size, only slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut). U.S. expediency and ignorance were being broadcast in ways that were impossible for Khartoum to miss.
Beginning in January 2011 military activities in and near Abyei by Khartoum’s regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its Misseriya militia allies increased, despite two nominal agreements on grazing rights for Misseriya herders. From February through March, the regime’s regular forces continued to deploy in the Abyei area. By late March the military seizure of Abyei was simply a matter of deciding when to use these forces, as established by satellite photography from the Satellite Sentinel Project, which had been following military deployments for many weeks.
DURING ROUGHLY the same interval, a “creeping military coup” was occurring in Khartoum, fundamentally changing the risk–reward calculus governing the regime’s decisions about war and peace. The regime hardliners and military strongmen made a decision to use an accidental firefight between the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum’s SAF on May 19 as pretext for invasion. In just two days, the North had seized all of Abyei and in the process driven more than 100,000 indigenous Dinka Ngok into South Sudan, where they remain today, with vastly inadequate humanitarian resources.
Princeton Lyman, the new U.S. special envoy for Sudan as of January, quickly accepted the UN assessment of responsibility for the incident, rendered by UN special representative for Sudan Haile Menkerios solely on the basis of interviews with two senior SAF officers and ignoring the fact that much violence preceded the incident, instigated and supported by Khartoum, including the destruction of Maker Abior, Todach, and Tajalei villages. The report strongly suggests that the UN was more intent on appeasing Khartoum than accurately assigning responsibility. Once the United States had accepted Menkerios’ assessment, Khartoum’s generals had their casus belli and the military seizure of Abyei was ordered.
Carrying what little they could, the Dinka Ngok fled to South Sudan (where they were again attacked by the SAF). By May 29 Khartoum had destroyed the Banton Bridge, the key link between Abyei and the South. Most of Abyei town was again looted and razed. A UN investigation concluded that there was evidence of “ethnic cleansing,” and some human rights experts went so far as to say Khartoum’s actions were evidence of crimes against humanity. Fear continued to sweep through Agok, the closest town in South Sudan to Abyei, and thousands fled even further south and west. They have no intention of returning until their security can be guaranteed.
A UN peacekeeping force of Ethiopian troops belatedly, and only partially, deployed to the region. But Khartoum has declared, in violation of the letter and spirit of the peacekeeping agreement, that it will not withdraw forces until the entire Ethiopian brigade has deployed—in other words, no time soon. The Abyei issue has been settled through a military fait accompli, which the international community seems unprepared to address.
Some observers initially saw Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei as an effort to gain leverage in negotiations with the South on other issues, including the 20 percent of the North–South border that remains undelineated, oil revenue-sharing (now at the center of intensifying economic warfare), the status of southerners in the North, and security arrangements. But as I argued at the time, the concern was not how Khartoum would use Abyei as a bargaining chip, but how it would extend its military aggression.
ON JUNE 5—two weeks after the seizure of Abyei and more than a month before southern independence—Khartoum’s SAF and Arab militia allies began a large military campaign in South Kordofan, a state on the northern side of the border with South Sudan. Again, the regime used a contrived military event as pretext, but the extent of the planning, and the purpose of the military actions, were clear from the beginning—including the pre-positioning of body bags and tarps for use in mass gravesites that would soon appear. Khartoum’s targets were members of the SPLA-North, and more generally the Nuba people, African tribal groups who are the predominant population in South Kordofan. Numerous eyewitness reports, including many in a confidential (though leaked) UN human rights report, established that targeted destruction of the Nuba took place.
While colonial borders placed South Kordofan in the North, much of the last civil war was fought in the Nuba Mountains; some 30,000-40,000 SPLA troops are from South Kordofan and nearby Blue Nile state and are determined to protect their families and homelands. The need for such protection became especially clear with the engineered election of Ahmed Haroun as governor of South Kordofan in May 2011, results foolishly ratified by the Carter Center. Haroun was an energetic instigator of attacks on civilians during the early years of the Darfur genocide—activities for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Khartoum would not let Haroun lose, and he in turn would not let down his bosses.
A genocidal onslaught quickly gathered pace in Kadugli and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, where hundreds of thousands of Nuba people, denied any international humanitarian assistance, have been forced to flee their homes in the face of constant aerial bombardment. We have no idea of the death toll, but given the massive disruption of the planting season caused by Khartoum’s bombing campaign and the absence of any food supplies from aid organizations, it will soon be staggering. Already severely malnourished, people will starve in large numbers in two to three months, according to the assessment of one seasoned humanitarian worker who made the dangerous journey into South Kordofan. Moreover, recent news makes clear that the dry season offensive has begun in the Nuba, when conditions allow the SAF to use its tracked vehicles, including tanks and heavy artillery carriers.
All too predictably, war extended into Blue Nile at the beginning of September—again, with widespread, indiscriminate bombing by the SAF. The bombing almost completely disrupted the fall harvest (late October through November), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is now predicting that the harvest will “fail.” The town of Kurmuk, the last significant bastion of the SPLA-North in Blue Nile, was captured on November 3, sending tens of thousands of additional civilians into Ethiopia. The Satellite Sentinel Project has recently revealed photographic evidence of Khartoum’s military extension of the airfield near Kurmuk, as well as the construction of helipads for military helicopters. Kurmuk lies only forty miles from the border, and the SAF’s Antonov bombers can now reach Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Although the regime permits no reporters or human rights monitors into Abyei, South Kordofan, or Blue Nile, we now have reports from intrepid journalists who have made it into the Nuba Mountains and Kurmuk, and the testimonies of some of the tens of thousands who have fled to the South and to Ethiopia. Amnesty International has also recently issued a terrifying account of the bombing of civilians in Blue Nile, and the UN estimates that the number of refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile will reach 100,000 by the end of the year. This grim figure seems too optimistic in light of the evidence, however, and does not include the more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok civilians who cannot return to Abyei.
The conflict has extended beyond the boundaries of the contested states, and beyond Darfur in the west, where violence is still a familiar presence. On November 10, for example, the refugee camp at Yida, well inside southern Unity State and home to more than 20,000 refugees from neighboring South Kordofan, was bombed. Three bombs detonated, though with no casualties; a fourth landed immediately outside a school where some 200 students were gathered. Casualties would have been horrific if the bomb had exploded. All humanitarian personnel have now been evacuated from the camp, and a population that made the desperate trek from South Kordofan to Yida is utterly bereft. Only the strongest will make it to new locations further inside South Sudan. The regime’s ambassador to the UN denies the bombing ever took place, calling all accusations of such an event “fabrications,” despite reports from the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse, as well as the BBC and Reuters. Meanwhile, war propaganda continually spews from regime-controlled media.
There have been numerous other bombings on territory of the now sovereign nation of South Sudan, and numerous cross-border ground incursions by the SAF and its militia allies. Fighting in the Jau region, right on the contested section of border between North and South, may prove to be the tipping point; a major military clash there appears to be imminent. Leaders in Juba—watching their former brothers-in-arms fight and seeing their families hunted like animals, bombed indiscriminately, and denied humanitarian relief—will not sit on the sides forever. War between North and South looms once again.
IN THE border regions of Sudan, we are witnessing a ghastly reprise of the conduct that has defined Khartoum’s brutal military control of its restless peripheries for decades—and a reprise of the shameless, mostly unchallenged mendacity with which this regime speaks to the international community. As in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, the regime is callously denying humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilians—children, women, the elderly, and the infirm. And just as the regime has turned Darfur into a “black box,” from which no honest accounts can emerge, so too has it drawn a veil over its actions in Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and Abyei.
The military seizure of Abyei in May 2011, like the Bor Mutiny in 1983, is an event with a complex historical context. But it marked the opening of a greater conflict that threatens to grow greater yet. The Obama administration, by failing to address the issues that made Abyei such a conspicuous flashpoint, “lost the peace” in Sudan. That failure may be even more destructive of human life than the misguided U.S. military intervention in Iraq under former President Bush.
Despite protestations, remembrances, and various declarations of resolve, Rwanda continues to stand as a grim measure of the degree to which inaction and “bystanding” can be as immoral as the unreasonable and illegitimate exercise of military power. Bush failed in his “Rwanda moment” during the height of the killing in Darfur. Now, with the border conflicts in Sudan, Obama appears to be doing the same. Absent a firm commitment to securing humanitarian corridors into Blue Nile and South Kordofan, by all means necessary, his administration will preside over civilian deaths from disease and starvation that may well number in the hundreds of thousands.
Such cross-border actions, while enormously challenging and very likely requiring military security if Khartoum continues to refuse all access, presently stand as the only means of preventing morally intolerable human destruction. A military commitment to protect humanitarian operations represents significant risks, and may spur Khartoum to retaliatory actions, for which a range of robust responses must be prepared, including destruction of SAF military aircraft implicated in attacks on civilians. The choice is between accepting these risks and acquiescing before the growing certainty of mass starvation; time does not permit equivocation.
Eric Reeves has worked as a Sudan researcher, analyst, and advocate for more than eleven years. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (2007).
Image: Abyei town in the aftermath of attacks this May (UN Photo, Flickr creative commons, May 23, 2011)