The similarities between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Pakistani-Indian Kashmir crisis and the Sudan and South Sudan Abyei question are striking given that they are all disputes over control of territory that was once part of a single country. Like Palestine and Kashmir, a series of agreements and negotiations have done little or nothing to resolve the dispute and, like the Middle East and south-Asian disputes, the two sides have become entrenched – both insisting that the other side is being unreasonable.
Six years after Sudan became two countries the intractable problem of Abyei not only remains a thorn in the sides of the neighbouring states but also amounts to an international peace keeping burden that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) no longer wishes to bear.
The roots of the problem date back to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which gave South Sudan the right to self-determination through a referendum and divided the oil wealth of the country on a 50/50 basis during the six year period before a referendum was scheduled to take place. The agreement also gave the area of Abyei "special" status and under a separate protocol scheduled it with its own referendum on the day South Sudan held its plebiscite. Abyei's choice was whether to remain in the north or whether to be considered part of the South in the event of a split.
Geographically, Abyei is part of north Sudan, confirmed by the United Nations demarcation border commission in 2012, but politically the area, which is predominately populated by Ngok Dinkas, is considered by Southerners as part of South Sudan. The strength of feeling resulted in South Sudan officially including the area in its transitional constitution written in 2011 but under pressure from Sudan and other international agencies South Sudan was forced to remove the reference to Abyei from the document.
I'll say it and I will repeat it a million times; Abyei is part of the north and will remain part of the north
said Sudan's President, Omar Al-Bashir, who threatened not to recognise the new state if the South insisted on the annex of Abyei.
Adding to the complex nature of the area, Abyei is thought to be oil rich that is frequented by northern nomadic tribes including the Messeriyah and Razzigat herdsman who for periods of up to six months use parts of the area to graze cattle. A defiant Al-Bashir claimed that no referendum could be valid unless these tribes were included in the plebiscite and given the right to vote.
"(The area)…must summit to the will of the ballot boxes or else boxes of bullets will decide the matter," warned Al-Bashir in 2012
In 2011, ahead of a vote set to exclude Sudanese nomadic tribes, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) descended in large numbers. For a time the crisis threatened to lead to a full scale resumption of the civil war fought between the two sides for the best part of three decades. The timely intervention of the African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) headed by the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, committed the two sides to forming a joint monitoring body with troops from both sides and the creation of a demilitarisation area which would smooth the path for a peaceful transition of power and de-escalate tensions.
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The break out of the civil war in South Sudan in 2013 put the issue on the back burner and the continuing crisis, political turmoil and lack of security in both countries ensured that planned talks have been postponed or cancelled a number of times.
Next week, the AUHIP has summoned both sides to Addis Ababa in a bid to make some tangible progress before the United Nations Interim Security Force's (UNISFA) 4,000 strong peace keeping troops are withdrawn. Solving the Abyei problem is seen as some observers key to resolving the disputes between Sudan and South Sudan as a whole.
Speaking to MEMO, Sudan political analyst, Mawan Muortat said:
If the African Union can get a breakthrough on this issue, it could mean other agreements could fall into place on other disputed border territories like South Kordofan and Blue Nile. But there is a growing frustration, particularly among the nine Ngok Dinka tribes, that the issues have gone unresolved for too long.
That frustration led the Ngok Dinka to organise a unilateral referendum in October 2013 which overwhelmingly supported joining South Sudan but Khartoum, Juba, the African Union and the international community refused to recognise the vote.
However, the likelihood of a breakthrough hinges on reaching agreement through the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOK) co-chaired by Hassan Ali Nemir of Sudan and Deng Mading Mijak of South Sudan. Differences between the two sides over the entitlement to hold a referendum persists although AUHIP are likely to press for consultations between tribal leaders to be concluded and the Abyei area to continue to be a weapons free zone. African Union negotiators do not appear to have a fixed end game but are hoping that local agreements will involve the two neighbours in the peaceful joint administration of the area without necessarily reaching a definite decision on ownership.
Fortunately, unlike the Palestine and Kashmir conflicts, the militarisation of the area, forced settlements by one group over another or unacceptable levels of inter alia violence have been kept to a minimum; but until a political agreement on a referendum or on some form of power sharing is reached an uneasy stalemate is likely to prevail for some time to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.