As Abyei Deadline Passes, Risks Rise for Mediators - and Civilians

By Caelin Briggs
A group of children living in Abyei, a disputed state on the Sudan-South Sudan border.

Wednesday, December 5th, marked the deadline given by the African Union (AU) for the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to reach agreement on the contested border state of Abyei.

Throughout repeated rounds of Juba-Khartoum negotiations (and despite the efforts of the AU and U.S. mediators), the dispute over Abyei has remained intractable. As Wednesday’s deadline came and passed, the two countries remained just as gridlocked as they were in early September, when this most recent round of talks began.

To most observers, this missed deadline hardly came as a surprise. From the outset, Khartoum took a firm position against the September 21st proposal by Thabo Mbeki, the AU’s chief negotiator, which called for a referendum on Abyei’s status that would include permanent residents but largely leave out the Arab Misseriya nomads. Khartoum refused to recognize the terms of the plan, or the six-week deadline subsequently imposed by the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) on October 24th. Anticipating Khartoum’s intransigence, the AUPSC concluded that if an agreement on the area was not reached by December 5th, then it would forward Mbeki’s proposal to the UN Security Council for endorsement.

Now that the deadline has passed, it remains to be seen whether the AUPSC will submit Mbeki’s proposal to the UN as planned, or attempt another round of negotiations with the parties. Some observers say that the AU and its partners should wait before binding Sudan and South Sudan to this controversial proposal. They argue that since the Sudans recently made steps toward resolving their other disagreements, a ham-fisted approach to Abyei could jeopardize the fragile agreements now in place.

Others, however, have expressed frustration that the Abyei talks are stagnating, and would welcome decisive action by the AU and UN. The sense that negotiations around the disputed area “simply cannot go on forever” has become all too common among government officials and civilians alike.

It is expected that the AUPSC will meet on December 14th to determine the next steps for Abyei. Whether they decide on a more aggressive approach or a more conciliatory one, it is critical that displaced and vulnerable populations in the border areas remain at the forefront of all considerations. Tensions around Abyei are running high, and the impact of the parties’ political decisions will be felt most acutely by those living in the conflict zone. Khartoum has already alluded to the potential for violence if the Mbeki’s proposal is forcibly implemented – threats that, if realized, would drastically worsen an already perilous humanitarian crisis.

Following the announcement on Monday that Princeton Lyman, U.S. Special Envoy to the Sudans, is stepping down, the U.S. must also recommit to being a constructive diplomatic force in the region. Now is not the time for the U.S. to abandon the Sudans. Depending on how the Abyei negotiations play out over the coming weeks, civilians in the region may need America’s attention more than ever.