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Abyei and South Kordofan: Why Our Diplomatic ‘Successes’ in Sudan Are Actually Failures

Two agreements about the dangerous crises in Sudan were signed in the past few days: one purporting to address the Abyei crisis, the other the massive ethnically targeted violence in South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. Cause for celebration? Hardly. There is a serious danger that these very modest diplomatic achievements, which resolve none of the fundamental issues, will simply buy Khartoum time to accomplish its goals in both regions.

The first agreement, a June 27 UN Security Council resolution, authorized an Ethiopian peacekeeping mission of 4,200 troops to patrol the disputed area of Abyei. This resolution grew out of the June 16 agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)—soon to become the leadership of the Republic of South Sudan when the country formally divides on July 9—and professed to address several issues surrounding control of Abyei. But the June 16 agreement is explicitly temporary; while Khartoum is obliged to remove its regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the document is vague about the militias that have created so much havoc in Abyei. Even with the presence of the Ethiopian force that was finally authorized a few days ago, Khartoum will only withdraw from Abyei to those locations that had given the northern regime de facto military control months ago.

The agreement also does nothing to explain how the more than 110,000 displaced Ngok Dinka—the indigenous people of Abyei—will be able to return to their homes safely. This is one reason the failure to deal head-on with the issue of militias, largely constituted by the nomadic Misseriya people, is so important. Unsurprisingly, it seems that no journalist in the region has found any Ngok from Abyei who are prepared to return.

But the most critical limitation of the recent agreement is that the final status of Abyei is simply consigned to future negotiations—negotiations that will change fundamentally when the North and South formally separate. At that point, Salva Kiir, President of the Government of South Sudan, and one part of the three-person “Presidency” established by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to govern Sudan during the “interim” period, will lose his position, leaving only members of Khartoum regime in the presidency and leaving Omar al-Bashir to make arrangements for Abyei’s self-determination referendum. Essentially, this cedes control to al Bashir, who has already indicated his disregard for the Abyei Protocol set up by the CPA and the Abyei ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2009. Khartoum also insists on considering nomadic Misseriya Arabs as residents of Abyei for voting purposes. It is difficult to see how the future does not entail a permanent land-grab by Khartoum.

And what of the agreement signed on June 28 by representatives of both the North and the South calling for shared governance of the contested border areas? This is even less substantive than the authorization of the Ethiopian troops—little more than an agreement to continue negotiations. It speaks of an “agenda” comprising only vacuous phrases: “recognition of the diversity in Sudan,” “rule of law,” “human rights,” “justice for all citizens of Sudan.” One could forgive the inflated rhetoric if there were some substance to the document. But it contains no agreement for cessation of hostilities, even as those hostilities continue in the most brutal fashion in South Kordofan. The document merely talks about the formation of a North-South Joint Security Committee to address “all relevant security issues.” This will be little comfort to those Nuba residents of South Kordofan who are presently being rounded up in house-to-house searches and at military checkpoints and repeatedly assaulted by military aircraft. Moreover, the agreement does nothing to facilitate humanitarian relief, which has been almost completely paralyzed by Khartoum’s military control of the airport in Kadugli, Kordofan’s capital, and the intolerable security conditions for relief workers.

One of the signatures on the agreement gives particularly little confidence. In addition to the Northern and Southern representatives, the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki (as head of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel) signed the agreement. The painful irony here is that the “Implementation” referred to in Mbeki’s title is the implementation of the road map for peace in Darfur that he presented almost two years ago. The report and its recommendations went nowhere. Darfuris generally despised Mbeki for being too close to Khartoum; so the frustrated would-be Nelson Mandela moved on to Abyei, where he quickly earned the mistrust of the Ngok by again siding conspicuously with Khartoum.

To make matters worse, there seems to be a willful ignorance of the severity of the situation among those who should be most concerned. Princeton Lyman, the recently appointed U.S. special envoy for Sudan, gave a complacent interview to “PBS NewsHour” on Tuesday, doubting that South Kordofan could become the next Darfur—despite the great massing of armor and military equipment in Kadugli. To a question about crimes throughout South Kordofan, Lyman blithely replied: “Because we don't have a presence there, we haven’t been able to investigate it fully. There are certainly reports of targeted killings. There are some reports from the other side [the SPLA] also. What we've asked for is a full [UN] investigation.”

Leaving aside the detailed, photographic evidence of crimes in the Nuba Mountains, Lyman says nothing about the atrocities outside the Nuba Mountains, which have been reported in authoritative and compelling detail. On June 28, for example, the UN said it could not account for 7,000 Nuba who had been in the protective custody of UNMIS, the UN peacekeeping operation. These civilians were compelled by Khartoum’s military intelligence officers, disguised as Red Crescent humanitarian workers, to move this population to Kadugli Stadium. There has been no account of them since.

Nor does Lyman betray any awareness of the gravity of the humanitarian crisis that Khartoum has deliberately engineered. The United Nations World Food Program has confessed it does not know how to reach 400,000 Kordofani recipients formerly on its rosters. Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, former governor of South Kordofan, estimates that as many as 500,000 people have already been displaced. Khartoum relentlessly bombs the Kauda airstrip in Kordofan, preventing humanitarian transport into the region. The UN and humanitarian staff are largely paralyzed in Kadugli.

South Kordofan and the entire gamut of border issues need forceful, urgent, and demanding diplomacy. Khartoum must be put on notice that the consequences of continued ethnic destruction and denial of humanitarian access in South Kordofan will be severe. This said, Obama is unlikely to shift to a new special envoy, given Lyman’s credentials and recent appointment, and the African Union is perfectly pleased with Mbeki and his serial failures. The chances of truly effective diplomacy, despite these recent agreements, seem dangerously small.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.