A year of agreements dishonoured

Since clashes commenced in February 2022, there have been a raft of unsuccessful attempts to mitigate the conflict. Only two weeks after fighting began, Kiir appointed a committee to investigate the violence, led by Vice President Hussein Abdelbagi Akol Agany—a Malual Dinka trader and politician whose family has long held economic and political power in the border region. The committee was beset by allegations of partisanship. The AAA was angry that the investigation had begun in Twic county, rather than Abyei, and claimed that Abdelbagi was not neutral because he had Twic family members. The Twic also considered the committee to be partisan, pointing to the presence of Deng Alor Kuol, an important Ngok politician, on the committee.[6] In May 2022, at the committee’s behest, four officials were arrested for their involvement in the violence, including the commissioners of Alal, Rumameer, and Twic counties. The arrests failed to halt the clashes, however.

A series of negotiations between the two sides have also failed to stem violence in the area. Abdelbagi’s committee organized an initial meeting in April 2022, which saw both sides commit to a cessation of hostilities agreement, only for conflict to resume two weeks later. In October 2022, a peace dialogue supported by the UN and international NGOs also failed to produce a lasting agreement, with the return of Ngok civilians to southern Abyei being framed by the Twic as an offensive act.[7]

More recently, Kiir convened a meeting in Warrap on 20 March 2023 in his hometown of Akon in Gogrial West, which brought together the governors of Lakes and Warrap, the chief administrator of Abyei, and Ngok and Twic customary leaders. Once again, both sides pledged to cease hostilities but failed to honour the agreement. A follow-up peace conference took place on 3–6 April, but no resolutions were signed; discussions broke down over the return of the Ngok Dinka to southern Abyei.

Within both the Twic and Ngok communities, conspiracy theories circulate about why the clashes continue. For many Ngok, the  venerable Twic politician Bona Malwal, who had previously served in both the Sudanese and South Sudanese government, incited the violence by giving a speech in Turalei at the beginning of 2022 calling on the Twic to seize land south of the river Kiir. Bona Malwal is likely a convenient scapegoat, however, due to his high profile feuds in the 1990s with a number of leading Ngok politicians.[8] Another theory is that the Twic have allied with the Misseriya, via the figure of Thomas Thiel, a Twic SAF general who remained with the northern army following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.[9] While it appears that information was indeed shared between the Twic and the Misseriya, and that some of the attacks have been coordinated, this is likely the full extent of the collaboration. The motivations of the two groups are importantly distinct.

Behind tales of shadowy political influence and cross-border conspiracies lie more prosaic reasons for the continuing clashes. At the root of the violence was an attempt by the Twic to exploit the political weakness of the Ngok Dinka in order to improve their own circumstances and compound the Ngok’s travails by taking control of Annet. Youth discontent over the dire economic situation in Twic county was fuelled by commissioners and military officers—including Deng Tong Goch and Akuei Ajou Akuei—who hoped to profit politically from the attacks. It is these political-economic issues that need to be addressed if any future peace negotiations are to be successful, and it is these issues that have been elided over the past year.

[6] Interviews with Twic officials, Juba, September 2022.

[7] Telephone interviews with those present at negotiations, Abyei and Warrap, October 2022.

[8] Interviews in Abyei with Ngok Dinka civilians and members of the political class, September 2022.

[9] Interviews in Abyei with Ngok Dinka civilians and members of the political class, September 2022.