A year of clashes

The chief administrator of the AAA at the time, Kuol Deim Kuol, restarted the land registry in December 2021.[3] The commissioner of Twic county, Deng Goch Tong, then wrote to Kuol asking him to stop the registry, as well as making a Twic claim to all the land south of the river Kiir. The rhetorical strategy of the letter was to claim that Abyei is part of Kordofan so that the Twic position appeared to be part of a broader South Sudanese claim to the territory of greater Bahr el Ghazal. The Twic sought to capitalize on national political antagonisms around Abyei and deploy them to local ends.

On 9 February 2022, Twic Dinka youth went to Mading Jok-Thiang and removed survey pegs: they were arrested and reportedly mistreated by the authorities in Rumameer, the county in which Agok is located. In response to these rumours, the Twic Dinka mobilized, and attacked Annet market. Fighting soon spread to other contested areas in southern Abyei, with Annet market burned down and 70,000 people displaced. Ngok Dinka counterattacks also resulted in tens of thousands of Twic fleeing further south into Twic county.

Clashes continued into March 2022. Twic assaults on settlements in the south of Abyei were paralleled by Misseriya attacks in the north, including on Amiet. Established by the Misseriya and the Ngok in 2016, Amiet was Abyei’s second major market. The assaults on the two markets were designed to attack the AAA’s economic base, and effectively squeeze the Ngok Dinka into the centre of Abyei. While the Twic laid claim to all the land south of the river Kiir, some Misseriya laid claim to all the land north of the river; caught between these two maximalist claims, the Ngok felt under existential threat. In response, Ngok Dinka youth organized themselves into community defence forces and attacked the Twic Dinka. While the Misseriya attacks were part of long-standing intermittent conflict between the two groups, the Twic attacks were felt by the Ngok to be the principal threat to the territory—hence the focus on the Twic–Ngok conflict by the community defence forces.

Violence continued intermittently throughout 2022. In May–June, the Ngok Dinka launched retaliatory raids into Twic, while the Twic Dinka carried out attacks inside Abyei. During the heavy rains of July and August, the conflict calmed, though the Twic Dinka set up checkpoints on the roads into Abyei, robbing private vehicles and traders, and laying siege to the territory. By September, the price of
sugar in Abyei town had increased three-fold in three months and bottled water had run out. This siege was designed to depopulate the south of Abyei and make it as difficult as possible for the Ngok to sustain life.[4]

Clashes recommenced later that month—with one Twic attack on Annet alone resulting in approximately 50 deaths on 25 September—and continued through to the end of the year. Further clashes have occurred in 2023, with the Ngok Dinka taking a more aggressive position and attacking northern Twic county. While the Ngok Dinka have attempted to shift the locus of the fighting into Warrap, the Twic Dinka have responded with raids into southern Abyei. The goal of these raids has been to keep southern Abyei depopulated, as civilians attempt to return from Abyei town. The Twic position is that a resolution to the territorial dispute must be reached before any such returns can occur.

During these clashes, the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) has been hamstrung. In theory, Abyei is demilitarized, which limited the extent to which the army could intervene to prevent conflict in the territory. From the beginning, however, SSPDF attempts to mediate the conflict have been beset by accusations of partisanship. The Ngok Dinka accused SSPDF Division 3 forces under General Akuei Ajou Akuei of favouring the Twic, while the Twic accused the Abyei Independence Brigade under Mario Kuol Monyuluak of favouring the Ngok. Divisions 7B and 11 of the SSPDF were also involved in the fighting.[5]

The SSPDF deployed to Agok town in October 2022, but has not succeeded in preventing clashes. The AAA has called for the establishment of a buffer zone on the border between Abyei and Twic county. Such a zone is unlikely to be effective, however, as
the border is too porous. In 2023, the SSPDF have increasingly become a target for the two groups: an SSPDF outpost in Ajac Kuac was attacked by Ngok Dinka on 22 February, and another outpost on 14 March, while Twic youth have also prevented SSPDF from moving from Abyei into Twic county.

[3] Kuol was replaced as chief administrator by Chol Deng Alaak on 9 January 2023.

[4] Interviews with AAA officials, Abyei, September 2022.

[5] Report of Abdelbagi’s commission, and telephone interviews with Ngok and Twic politicians, September 2022–May 2023.