Sudan – a ‘Kosovo’ approach to Abyei and Nuba?

While the Kosovo-Serbia case is fundamentally different from that of Sudan, the experience of the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo is not so dissimilar to the situation of the African enclaves in southern Sudan, and may indeed serve as a model for dealing with Abyei and Nuba.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

The agreed independence of South Sudan achieved last July under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 was a great accomplishment. It is rare for the leadership of any country to agree to its dismemberment. Of course, the agreement came after decades of on-and-off war in which the Khartoum government used often brutal means to resist its opponents. Nevertheless, the Sudanese government lived up to the terms of the agreement and president al-Bashir even attended the Independence Day celebrations in Juba. War now threatens again, however, because the border is not fixed, with the status of two enclaves still in Sudan at the root of the problem.

Accepting the loss of the south, the Sudanese government refuses to allow other parts of the country to break away. It unleashed a brutal war against the non-Arab tribes of Darfur in 2003 to prevent the rebels there from trying to duplicate the SPLM’s (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) success in the south. It also refused to allow a 2011 referendum in the border area of Abyei (part of what Khartoum calls South Kordofan) as called for by the CPA. Sudanese forces attacked populations there and in the Nuba Mountains to signal its refusal to allow them to choose joining the south and to chase away the non-Arabs there so that others could take their place. This effort to “reengineer” the ethnic balance followed the same pattern used in Darfur.

The people of Abyei and Nuba are majority African tribes – mostly Dinka in Abyei and Dinka-speaking in Nuba. They share cultural affinities with the people of South Sudan and participated in the struggle with the SPLM. The Sudanese government’s actions – in these areas and in possibly supporting rebels within South Sudan as leverage – are clearly meant to prevent further territorial losses. Relations between Sudan and South Sudan have deteriorated to the point of Juba stopping the pumping of oil for transport north and growing tensions along the border, with each accusing the other of supporting rebels against it.

The status of what can be termed the “African enclaves” north of the border is the root issue between Khartoum and Juba. Oil is a complicating factor as much of it went south with independence. Abyei also has remaining reserves and the pipeline north passes through it. The chief factor, however, is the Sudanese leadership’s refusal to allow further defections as all areas outside of Khartoum itself have at least simmering separatist tendencies.

While the situation of Kosovo and Serbia is fundamentally different from Sudan, the experience of the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo is not so dissimilar to the situations of the African enclaves in southern Sudan. With the prospect of independence for Kosovo looming in 2005, the UN Secretary General appointed former Finish President Martti Ahtisaari as his special envoy for the future status of Kosovo. Ahtisaari sought to facilitate an agreement between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanian leadership in Kosovo on that status but the two sides disagreed fundamentally. The Kosovo Albanians demanded independence and Belgrade refused.

In the course of the discussions, Ahtisaari had elaborated a plan that would govern a multi-ethnic Kosovo with an Albanian majority but with several Serbian enclaves. When the UN Security Council failed to agree on the plan, the Western supporters of Kosovo independence decided that it should declare independence anyway – in March 2008 – and implement the Ahtisaari Plan with EU and US supervision.

The Ahtisaari Plan provided for Kosovo Serb municipalities with important elements of self-rule in health, education and social issues, plus a role in choosing the local police chief. These municipalities would have the right to their own funding, block grants from central government and funding from Belgrade. They could form associations with other municipalities, including those in Serbia. Dual citizenship was also an option. The intent was clear – to allow Serbs in these municipalities to live in two worlds at once, in both Kosovo and Serbia. All of this was in the context, however, of these enclaves being part of the sovereign state of Kosovo and participating in the central government in Pristina.

Perhaps the treatment of the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo might serve as a model for dealing with Abyei and Nuba? A first principle might be to accept that borders should not be further altered, and that the two areas would remain part of the sovereign state of Sudan. Khartoum, however, would for its part accept that the two enclaves would have self-rule in agreed areas, with the right to maintain formal linkages to South Sudan in those areas. People living in Abyei and the Nuba Mountains would be Sudanese but be functionally integrated into South Sudan as well in those defined ways.

It’s not clear that anyone in Khartoum or Juba is yet ready to negotiate an approach to Abyei and Nuba that would defuse the tensions over the border. Nor does there appear to be a serious international interlocutor with the credibility and “toolset” to bring the two to the table. The US has blunted its effectiveness by refusing to honor agreements with Khartoum to begin regularizing relations if it accepted southern independence. African Union mediation seems to be getting nowhere. A first step, however, might be for everyone to face up to the issue of Abyei and Nuba. Without a solution for these two areas, more war remains likely.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

To learn more about members of the GCCT from Sudan, please click here.

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