Keeping Peace in Abyei: The Role and Contributions of Ethiopia

Since February 2011, Abyei and South Kordofan, oil rich disputed border areas of South Sudan and Sudan, witnessed an intensive military clash between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) forces and the military of the Government of Sudan (GoS).  This reached a tipping point when the GoS forces took control of the town of Abyei in May 2011. Since then violent military confrontations have become the hallmark of the relationship between the North and South Sudan.

Facilitated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, chief of the AU-High-level Implementation Panel, the Addis Ababa Agreement on Abyei was signed by the SPLM forces and the Government of Sudan (GoS) on 20 June, 2011. The main objective of the Addis Agreement on Abyei is to ensure that this border area remains demilitarised until proper demarcation is undertaken. The same agreement provided for the deployment of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission from Ethiopia. The UN Security Council Resolution 1990 authorized a United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. 

UNISFA composed of 4250 Ethiopian troops, including civilian police, is unique for many reasons. Unlike most peacekeeping missions in the World, UNISFA is entirely composed of Ethiopian peace troops. The Force Commander, Ethiopian Lieutenant General Taddesse Worede, is also the Head of the Mission. This arrangement merges the political and civilian work under one leadership. Its full complement makes it one of the biggest missions in terms of the geographic area covered under a UN peacekeeping mission: on an average 1 Ethiopian peacekeeper per 2.3 square kilometers.  With UNISFA, the total number of UN peace mission staff in Abyei will become close to 5000.

The deployment was very swift compared to other peacekeeping missions. Under normal circumstances, the deployment of peacekeeping missions take a long time, as it requires convincing troop contributing countries, mobilising resources required and deploying them on the ground. UNISFA was deployed on 22 July, 2011, a month after the authorization of the mission by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) under Resolution 1990 on 25 June, 2011.  The UNSC Resolution 1990 also came out swiftly, three days after the conclusion of the Addis Agreement on Abyei under which contending parties— GoS and GoSS made a request for the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeeping troops. 

There are several other factors that made the deployment of UNISFA unique and rapid compared to other peacekeeping missions.  The first has to do with Ethiopia’s longstanding tradition of participating in peace missions.

Since the establishment of the UN, Ethiopia has participated in more than ten peacekeeping missions at continental and global level. With UNISFA, Ethiopia currently has close to 7000 troops in various UN peacekeeping missions. This makes Ethiopia one of the top five troop contributing countries on both African and global level. In the 1950s and the 1960s, Ethiopia participated in the UN peacekeeping missions in Koreaand Congo. Recently, Ethiopia has also participated in Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia and is participating in Darfur, and now Southern Sudan.

Given the fact that both parties requested the Ethiopian force, the Addis Ababa Agreement on Abyei expressed the trust Ethiopia enjoys in both Khartoum and Juba.. This is indicative of the role Ethiopia and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been playing and could play in the global effort to resolve the crises in Sudan.  The agreement of both parties to the conflict in Abyei is the second important reason why UNISFA was deployed fast.  

The third reason has to do with the regional implications of the border war between South and North Sudan. Apart from the humanitarian responsibility of Ethiopia to grant asylum to many refugees, which now has reached 20 000, insurgent rebel groups supported by Eritrea may use such instability to destabilise the border regions. The negative impact of a full-blown war between North and South Sudan will not be limited to the two countries but also to the region including Ethiopia. As a leading player in the Horn of Africa and Chair of the IGAD, Ethiopia took the initiative to deploy its troops to the disputed region immediately.

The fourth and perhaps the most important reason is what one may call ‘the Meles-Mbeki’ factor. While the latter was Head of State of South Africa, the two found common positions during AU summits, for example in opposing the late Muammar Gaddafi’s agenda on immediate African integration. Similarly, one would imagine that as chief of AU Panel, President Mbeki would consult with Prime Minister Meles and Chairperson Jean Ping. Such meeting of minds and communication within the ‘Meles-Mbeki-Ping Troika’ is likely to have facilitated the decision for swift deployments of Ethiopian peacekeeping troops in Abyei.  

Going forward the main challenges to UNISFA remain the willingness of the armies of both parties to withdraw from Abyei.  Until recently, the army of North Sudan had not fully withdrawn from the buffer zone. As a result, the UN condemned the reluctance of both sides to withdraw their armies from the buffer zone. Other additional challenges include: the size of the troops compared to the geographic area that it is supposed to cover, the unpredictability of the actions of North Sudanese military, particularly aerial bombardment, the politicisation and militarisation of the border areas in preparation to any referendum that may be conducted to determine the fate of disputed areas and the viability of the GoSS to provide stability and security in the border areas. Other challenges include the establishment of interim civilian administration in the disputed areas and return of IDPs and refugees to their areas of origin. Population displacement and transfers are being conducted by both the GoS and the GoSS to influence any future demarcation or decision on Abyei. The recent requests from authorities of South Sudan for the return of refugees from neighbouring countries including Ethiopia and internally displaced persons from other parts of South Sudan reflects how population displacement and their return may be used for political reasons.. 

Finally, UNISFA and Abyei may also increasingly become an additional target of Eritrea’s destructive role in the Horn. For the international community, the UN, AU and IGAD, the negative role of the Eritrean government in Sudan is a serious issue that it needs its utmost attention for peace-keeping in Sudan.