Abyei was due to have a referendum in 2011 on whether its inhabitants wished to join southern Sudan, if South Sudan voted to secede from Sudan after conducting its own referendum (Craze, 2011, pp. 23–27). While South Sudan became a sovereign nation, Abyei’s referendum ran aground due to a disagreement over voter eligibility.

Instead of having the opportunity to vote, Abyei was invaded by SAF in May 2011 (Craze, 2013). The Ngok Dinka fled south to Agok. Following an agreement reached later that year, SAF withdrew from most of Abyei, and the Ngok Dinka gradually returned to Abyei town, with a mono-ethnic administration taking de facto control of the centre and south of the territory. The Ngok have not been able to return to the north of Abyei due to SAF’s presence around the area’s sole oil field, Diffra—despite repeated calls by the UN Security Council for the force to withdraw. While the subsequent decade has been somewhat stable, Abyei has stagnated politically.

In October 2013, the Ngok Dinka held a unilateral referendum, in which they voted to join South Sudan, though neither Khartoum nor Juba recognized the result. Khartoum insists that any referendum on Abyei’s future must include the Misseriya, some of whom migrate seasonally into Abyei. This is a redline for the Ngok Dinka, who fear that many Misseriya who do not migrate will also register as voters, ensuring that Abyei votes to stay in Sudan.[1]

A decade of diplomatic stalemate has been deleterious to the people of Abyei, but eminently productive for Sudan. Khartoum benefits from oil revenues from Diffra, which—despite the commitments made in several peace agreements—do not go to Abyei, but are instead shared with Juba.[2]

The impasse in Abyei is also politically productive for Juba. It enables Kiir to rhetorically support Abyei joining South Sudan while making no substantive moves that would risk angering Khartoum. Since 2013, Kiir has become much closer to the Sudanese regime. This realignment prevented the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO), and more recently the Kitgwang faction, from receiving much succour in Sudan.

[1] The Misseriya are a much broader group than those from the Ajaira and Felaita gabily (section) of the Humr that annually migrate into Abyei, and include groups in Darfur and Chad.

[2] Interviews with Abyei Area Administration (AAA) officials, Abyei, September 2022.