JUBA, Sudan — Western diplomats and African leaders are pressing for a new strategy to defuse Sudan’s bitterly contested Abyei area: bringing in Ethiopian peacekeepers as a buffer between opposing forces.
Op-Ed: Sudan’s Peaceful Partition, at Risk (May 30, 2011) According to several Western officials in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, Ethiopia has volunteered to deploy several thousand soldiers to the Abyei area, which straddles the border between northern and southern Sudan and was seized by the northern Sudanese military on May 21.
“We need something quick for Abyei, and the Ethiopians are it,” a Western diplomat said Monday.
The contested status of Abyei has become one of the most worrisome issues facing Sudan as it prepares to split into two. In July, southern Sudan is scheduled to declare its independence from the north after a liberation struggle that cost millions of lives over decades.
But several key issues remain unresolved, including how to split oil revenues and Sudan’s $38 billion debt. With northern soldiers and tanks occupying Abyei and southern officials demanding their withdrawal — and tens of thousands of civilians recently displaced and scattered in the bush — Western diplomats and many Sudanese fear that the breakup of Sudan could coincide with the breakout of war, unless Abyei is solved.
Under the proposal, the northern army would withdraw from the Abyei area in the next few weeks, and in their place would come thousands of Ethiopian soldiers until a permanent solution could be reached. Abyei was supposed to be patrolled by joint northern and southern forces, under a peace agreement signed several years ago, but that did not work, setting off clashes in recent months.
Ethiopia is seen as a neutral player in Sudan, trusted by both northern and southern leaders. Its military intervened in Somalia in recent years to oust an Islamist movement and is considered one of the strongest in Africa, though human rights groups have accused Ethiopian soldiers of serious abuses, especially in Ethiopia’s Ogaden desert.
Publicly, northern officials have said that Abyei is part of the north and therefore they do not want any foreign country deploying troops there.
“We will not accept this,” said Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. “Maybe this is something under discussion. There have been many discussions, but no decision has been made.”
But one Western official who works closely on Sudan issues said “privately both sides have bought into this.”
Col. Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the southern Sudanese military, known as the SPLA, said, “the government of southern Sudan is negotiating, and definitely the SPLA will welcome Ethiopians as part of the U.N. mission in Sudan.”
Western diplomats said that the Ethiopian proposal was the only way to quickly de-escalate tensions in Abyei, and that Ethiopia was prepared to dispatch troops in the next few weeks.
The mission may be run under a regional body known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which consists of Ethiopia, Kenya and several other east African nations. Or it could possibly be connected to a United Nations mission, similar to the arrangement in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the United Nations and African Union jointly run a large peacekeeping operation.
In recent days, the Sudanese government has said that another United Nations peacekeeping force, entrusted with patrolling the north-south border, must leave the north in July.
Western diplomats emphasized that the details of the Ethiopian proposal had not been fully worked out and that negotiations were continuing between northern and southern officials over Abyei and other disputed areas, including Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, two states in the north that are home to a large number of southern-allied troops and have recently been the scene of an intense buildup of northern forces.
Ethiopian officials did not return calls on Monday, but Western diplomats said Ethiopia was eager to pay a bigger role in the region and was concerned about an outbreak of war in Sudan spilling over the borders.