A typical homestead in the contested Abyei region, May 2016. Oil-rich Abyei abuts both Sudan and South Sudan and is claimed by the two countries. (cc) The Niles | Nancy Alek Kuol

At least 19 people were killed and dozens wounded in an attack in the disputed Abyei region. Abyei is just one of several intractable problems that continue to cloud relations between Sudan and South Sudan.

On Wednesday, January 22, suspected nomadic Misseriya herders from Sudan attacked the village of Kolom in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei, according to a United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) statement. The statement adds that at least two dozen people were injured and that three children were reportedly missing. At least 19 houses were set ablaze.

Kuol Alor Kuol, the head of the Abyei Administrative Area, said that the attackers came from the areas that belong to the Misseriya tribe, calling on the UNISFA to protect the citizens of the area under its safeguarding. “What happened is a disaster; the Abyei case goes to a dangerous juncture. So we call on the international community and the government to resolve the issue,” Kuol added.

In Khartoum, the transitional government condemned the attack, and government spokesman Faisal Mohamed Saleh said in an official statement that “the government renews its position calling for the resolution of the Abyei issue through dialogue, mutual understanding and coexistence of the different societies in the region”.

“What happened is a disaster.”

Kuol Alor Kuol

The statement called on the UNISFA forces in the region to control the security situation and protect civilians, adding that “the Sudanese government will not allow the continuation of the Sudanese blood streak in any part of Sudan and will work with determination to protect unarmed civilians and preserve their dignity”.

After a meeting between the First Vice President of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, with the President of South Sudan, Lieutenant General Salva Kiir Mayardit, Hemeti announced the formation of a joint committee to investigate the incident, and pledged to work to bring those responsible to justice.

Tut Galwak, head of the South Sudan mediation team and adviser to President Salva Kiir for security affairs, condemned the attack and confirmed that Sudan and South Sudan agreed to form a joint committee to investigate the incident.

Hemeti described the attack as an act of sabotage targeting the peace process taking place in Juba. He condemned the incident and expressed his condolences. He added that the incident happened in a demilitarized zone, where UNISFA is responsible for protecting the citizens. As UNISFA is not doing their part, Sudan and South Sudan are seeking a mechanism – forming joint forces – to protect civilians in the area, Hemeti said.

Following South Sudan’s secession in 2011, the two countries inked a Cooperation Agreement on September 27, 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Five thorny issues were part of the deal: Abyei, borders, citizens, oil and rebels. However, with an eye on developments in both countries, the two Sudans remain a long way from resolving them.

1. What next for Abyei?

As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the second Sudanese civil war, a “special status” was awarded to Abyei. But even after South Sudan became a country in its own right, the issue continued to burn. Oil-rich Abyei abuts both Sudan and South Sudan and is claimed by the two countries.

In 2012, the African Union proposed a referendum over Abyei, in which the nine Dinka Ngok tribes and the population living in that area would participate, taking into consideration the political rights of the Misseriya tribe. The by then Khartoum government refused to support the decision because the Misseriya tribe were excluded from the vote, meaning the outcome would likely go against Sudan.

The Juba government, however, approved the proposed referendum. The issue hung in the balance until October 2013, when the nine Dinka Ngok tribes in Abyei forged ahead with a unilateral referendum to annex the area to South Sudan. Still, the African Peace and Security Council refused to accept their vote. To this day, there is little to suggest that the status of Abyei will be settled in the near future.

“No progress has been made in settling the final status of Abyei.”

John Pierre Lacroix

After the revolution that toppled Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, John Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said in a report he submitted to the United Nations Security Council on Sudan on October 24, 2019: “Positive momentum is being driven by reciprocal visits of the leaders of both countries as well as support for each other’s peace processes, he said.  Nonetheless, no progress has been made in settling the final status of Abyei.”

He pointed out that this raises concern because the “lack of progress in joint policing in the areas — which has experienced increased criminality and presence of armed elements — is concerning”. And only months after Lacroix’s warning, the attack on the village of Kolom happened.

In light of last year’s political changes in Sudan, brought about by a popular uprising, many believe that Sudan and South Sudan can reach an understanding over Abyei, particularly given that the Sudanese side wants to distance itself from the old regime, which it holds responsible for the decline in the relationship between Khartoum and Juba, following the independence of South Sudan.

2. Borders: Where is the zero line?

The Addis Ababa agreement underlined the need for clear borders, or the so-called Zero Line identification, and the withdrawal of the two countries’ armies from each other’s territories. On January 29, 2016, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir ordered his army to immediately pull out from the area within five miles from the border with Sudan. However, the negotiating parties failed to identify the Zero Line, making it hard to determine the demilitarized security zone between the two countries.

“The major obstacle for the two states from September 2012 to January 2013 was identifying the Zero Line, which Sudan considers essential to address the vitally important security issues,” said Moiz Faroog, a former delegation member to the negotiations with South Sudan. “The Joint Border Demarcation Committee – set up before the separation – agreed on 80 percent of border demarcation of the states. They, however, disagreed over four sites – namely, Kafia Kingi, Mgeinis, Joda and Kaka.”

On January 27, 2016, former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir issued an order to reopen the border, following positive gestures by his South Sudanese counterpart. But question marks were raised about this plan in March of the same year when rumours swirled that borders were once again being blocked, speculation which proved unfounded. But the highly politicised issue of borders remains volatile and does not look likely to go away any time soon.

“The Joint Border Demarcation Committee […] agreed on 80% of border demarcation.”

Moiz Faroog

However, on November 1, 2017, Sudan and South Sudan announced that the process of demarcating the borders between the two countries would begin. The by-then Minister of State at the Presidency of the Republic of Sudan, Al-Rashid Haroun, according to the Sudanese News Agency, said that the two sides discussed the demarcation of the borders between the two countries, adding that “the two sides agreed to continue the joint meetings and submit an integrated report during the next six months on the status of the borders, to initiate the process of demarcating the borders”. This was confirmed by the President of the Commission from South Sudan, Michael Makuei.

The former Bashir government did not conclude the issue of the borders, and according to the head of the National Border Commission, the work of the technical committees continued for seven years, during which 120 meetings were held. However, he indicated that the two parties would define their views on the disputed areas, during the next Addis Ababa meeting.

Sudan and South Sudan announced on October 23, 2019, a tentative agreement on the issue of border demarcation, and they signed a final report, which was drawn up by the joint demarcation committees in Khartoum.

“The border agreement can be described as complete.”

Darius Garang Paul

The Chairman of the Demarcation Committee from the Sudanese side, Alamin Mohamed Banga, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the joint committee prepared papers and documents on the borders, and included the delineation of the agreed line, including coordinates of the path and relevant maps so that the work of the technical committees is completed by the time the next meeting takes place.

The head of the South Sudanese committee, Darius Garang Paul, considers that “the border agreement can be described as complete”, and that the two parties have completed the budget arrangements and work plans.

3. Citizens or foreigners?

On March 18, 2016, the Sudanese Council of Ministers said it would treat South Sudanese people as foreigners, removing their access to health and education services and taking a hard line on southerners who do not hold passports.

It ruled that all South Sudanese needed a valid official entry visa within a week. The move sparked shock among the immigrants, as it unwound a previous decision which granted them the right to live as Sudanese citizens.

The move was implemented amid rising tensions between the Sudans following Khartoum’s accusation that Juba harboured rebels. In response, South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei threatened to take similar steps against Sudan.

The conditions of South Sudanese citizens only began to change in Sudan after the revolution succeeded to topple the regime of Bashir, in April 2019.

On his first visit to South Sudan in September 2019, Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok pledged to build a neighbourly relationship with South Sudan, in which the citizens of the two countries move without restrictions. Hamdok agreed with his South Sudanese counterpart to reopen the border and allow commercial exchanges and the free movement of citizens.

4. How much for a barrel of oil?

Following extensive talks, the two parties finally struck an agreement on charges for transporting oil from South Sudan through the Sudanese territories. Oil forms the backbone of South Sudan’s economy and the loss of oil income left a deep dent in Sudan’s finances following secession, making the fees a hot topic for both countries. The negotiating teams, with mediation from third parties, finally agreed that South Sudan would pay Sudan a total fee of USD 24-26 per barrel.

This sum included a USD 11 per barrel fee for transportation services, payable to the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a Chinese-Malaysian company operating in the Unity fields. This fee also includes a processing fee of USD 1.60, a transport fee of USD 8.40 and a USD 1 transit fee for each barrel. As for oil coming through PetroDar, a Chinese-Malaysian company operating in the Upper Nile fields, South Sudan pays USD 9.10 per barrel. In addition to these fees, South Sudan must “transfer a finite sum of USD 3.028, as a transitional financial arrangement”, according to the Cooperation Agreement.

Following the outbreak of war in South Sudan and plummeting global oil prices, the new country’s fragile economy took a hit, prompting Juba to request a reduction in oil transit charges. On January 11, 2016, former South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin Marial said his country asked Sudan’s government to lower the charges. “It is due to global fall of oil prices,” he told Sudanese Al-Shorooq TV.

“Khartoum is obliged to take its share in kind.”

Badreddine Mahmoud

Shortly after however, Sudan’s by then Finance Minister Badreddine Mahmoud said that “South Sudan has defaulted on oil transit charges and Khartoum is obliged to take its share in kind in accordance with the JCA”. In his address to the Sudanese parliament on January 20, he added that: “The Sudanese government is making technical arrangements should Juba shut down its oil pipelines.”

But just a day later the Sudan News Agency (SUNA) quoted government sources saying that al-Bashir agreed to reduce Sudan’s charges on South Sudan’s oil transit. This reduction does not affect the total amount to be paid by South Sudan, i.e. USD 3.028 billion. It only means that the amount per barrel would be reduced, thus extending the payment period initially set at three and a half years in the cooperation agreement.

The Sudanese transitional government decided on November 28, 2019, to extend the agreement on the transportation and export of South Sudan’s oil, via Sudanese territory, until March 2022. The Sudanese Undersecretary of the Ministry of Energy and Mining, Hamid Suleiman Hamid, said in a press statement, according to the Sudan News Agency, that “the discussions about the extension of the agreement to transport the South crude through Sudan, to the ports for the purpose of export, and to extend the implementation of the agreement signed in 2012”.

5. Who is helping the rebels?

Written in black on white in the Cooperation Agreement is the clause that neither country can allow armed oppositions in its territories. But hardly any time passed before accusations started flying back and forth between the two countries.

The Sudanese government was quick to point the finger at South Sudan’s government for failing to cut ties with the SPLA-North, the Sudanese offshoot of South Sudan’s SPLA. And when Vice President Riek Machar broke away from President Kiir in December 2013 and became a rebel leader, Juba accused Khartoum of supporting him.

“Security arrangements remain a huge challenge.”

Moiz Faroog

“Security arrangements remain a huge challenge,” said Moiz Faroog, adding that it is nigh on impossible to monitor a 1,260 km-long border which is home to two-thirds of both countries’ populations.

However, the previous Sudanese government led by Bashir entered into mediation between the government of South Sudan led by Salva Kiir Mayardit and the leaders of the opposition in 2018, which resulted in the signing of an agreement between the conflicting parties. In turn, South Sudan is currently mediating negotiations between the Sudanese rebels and the Sudanese transitional government after the revolution toppled Bashir’s government. These ongoing negotiations are taking place in Juba and could decide the future of peace in Sudan.