Home / Africa / Abyei’s Struggle for Stability as Intercommunal Conflict Continues

Abyei’s Struggle for Stability as Intercommunal Conflict Continues

6 March, 2024

by Sam Biden, Research Assistant

Status of Abyei

The Protocol on the Resolution of the Abyei conflict (2004) officially granted Abyei – an area whose control is disputed by Sudan and South Sudan – special administrative status, with residents being citizens of both Western Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal, and having representation in both states’ legislatures and governance by a local Executive Council. Resources from Abyei were agreed to be divided among various stakeholders, including the National Government, the Government of Southern Sudan, and local communities. The Temporary Arrangements for the Administration and Security of Abyei (2011) is a supplementary agreement between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, outlining temporary administrative and security measures for the Abyei Area. Security arrangements dictate the demilitarisation of the region except for the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) composed of Ethiopian troops. Sudanese military forces were forced to redeploy from the area, and only UNISFA is authorised to be present within Abyei’s boundaries. Additionally, a Joint Military Observer Committee (JMOC) was formed, consisting of an equal number of observers from both parties, chaired by the ISFA Force Commander, with the task of submitting monthly reports on the political/security state of Abyei.

Security landscape

The security situation in the Abyei Area has remained tense from 2021 to present, characterised by a seemingly rising pattern of violent incidents that threatened the stability of the region. Notably, violations of the 2011 agreement were observed, with Sudanese Armed Forces and troops from the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces being spotted in Abyei throughout 2021 and onwards, many times in possession of weapons and driving army vehicles in convoys. Since 2021, 73 arms-related incidents took place, of which 37 directly targeted civilians, resulting in 91 deaths. Additionally, the proliferation of weapons by rival communal militias Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka in Southern Abyei, emerged as a pressing issue. Efforts to counter this proliferation were undertaken, resulting in the confiscation and destruction of 70 weapons and over 9,000 rounds of ammunition.

UNISFA camps and personnel have had their security compromised consistently on the ground, with protests, attacks and killings becoming all too common. In response to clashes between the Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka militias, UNISFA aided in key evacuations throughout Southern Abyei, where they were attacked at their camp two days later, resulting in 13 injuries. In Agok, a UNISFA convoy was attacked by an armed group, with a warning letter from the Twic Council of Traditional Chiefs coming shortly after, warning them to withhold from patrolling the area. In total, UNISFA has identified a minimum of 46,000 displaced persons from Agok alone: the true scale of displacement is not yet verified.

In response to the destabilised security of Abyei, UNISFA actively engaged with local and traditional authorities to defuse tensions and prevent further bloodshed, particularly between rival factions, which are responsible for a significant proportion of the ongoing violence. Efforts to increase stability in the region have been made consistently by UNISFA, including supporting the evacuation of aid workers from volatile areas, facilitating the transfer of displaced persons to safer locations and collaborating with relevant authorities to address underlying security concerns in the region.

Human rights and humanitarianism

The human rights situation in the Abyei Area remains fragile and marked by repeated cycles of violence along ethnic lines, resulting in severe consequences for the civilian population. Challenges persist in documenting human rights violations and abuses, exacerbated by the absence of dedicated human rights expertise as mandated by Security Council Resolution 2609. However, efforts to assess the situation were initiated during 2021 with the first temporary visas being granted to two human rights officers for a mission to Abyei, a major breakthrough for human rights monitoring. Their initial assessment brought several key concerns. First, the effective safeguarding of women’s and children’s rights is hampered by the absence of pertinent rule of law establishments, leaving women and children exposed to persistent gender-based violence. Second, child marriage consistently plagues the lives of young women, not only violating their rights as children but also disproportionately impacting their access to education. Third, the lack of rule of law institutions impedes access to justice and accountability, with the Joint Community Court (JCC) failing to handle cases of rape, domestic abuse and offences against children. Additionally, new human rights training has been provided on behalf of UNISFA, with three courses being provided to 66 staff members within Abyei, allowing them to identify human rights issues more easily with avenues to report them to the new human rights officers.

The humanitarian situation in the Abyei Area remains challenging, with significant obstacles hindering access to basic services. Episodes of violence, mass displacement and economic challenges in both Sudan and South Sudan further compound the issue. Limited government services and the absence of humanitarian agencies across Abyei increase the overall precariousness of the situation. The withdrawal of humanitarian organisations from violence-affected areas out of fear further disrupts the delivery of essential services, leaving thousands of vulnerable individuals without adequate support. Attacks on remaining aid workers and the destruction of homes and properties continues to increase internal displacement and vulnerability among affected populations. Access to basic services, including healthcare, water, sanitation and education remains severely limited across Abyei. Health facilities suffer from inadequate resources and capacity, with many facilities lacking essential medical supplies to treat the victims of attacks. The lack of access to primary healthcare services, clean water and sanitation facilities poses significant health risks to local communities and displaced persons, causing further layers of vulnerability.

Ngok-Twic Conflict

Friction first emerged in Abyei in 2017 when the Abyei Area Administration (AAA) initiated a land registry in Annet, sparking opposition from the Twic Dinka community. The Twic claimed Annet and Agok as part of Twic county, Warrap state, while the Ngok Dinka argued that The Hague’s 2009 decision established these areas as part of their territory. This disagreement, rooted in historical and territorial claims, underscores deeper issues of mutual marginalisation between the two communities.

Abyei’s strategic importance, sitting at the crossroads between Sudan and South Sudan, further complicates the situation with both the Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka laying claim to the territory, each citing historical precedents to support their claims. Ethnic tensions between the communities remains a major issue, having been exacerbated by political and economic marginalisation. Political interference from both Sudan and South Sudan has complicated efforts to resolve the conflict. Both governments have at times supported proxy militias or sought to exert influence over local leaders to advance their own interests. The lack of a clear political framework for resolving the status of Abyei, compounded by broader geopolitical rivalries between Sudan and South Sudan, has hindered efforts to achieve a sustainable peace agreement between the parties. The Ngok Dinka, who predominantly inhabit Abyei, feel neglected by both the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments, while the Twic Dinka perceive themselves as sidelined politically and economically within South Sudan. This sense of marginalisation has fuelled resentment and competition over resources and influence, with rivalry being dampened by illegitimate resource acquisition by officials in Juba. This competition for control over land and natural resources, particularly fertile grazing land and access to water sources, lies at the heart of the conflict. Both the Ngok and Twic Dinka communities rely heavily on agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihoods, making land ownership and control a central issue in the dispute.

The conflict escalated in 2022 when Twic Dinka youth removed survey pegs, leading to clashes and the displacement of thousands. The violence was exacerbated by broader political dynamics and economic disparities, with the Twic community seizing an opportunity to assert influence amidst feelings of marginalisation following political changes. Despite mediation attempts and peace agreements, accusations of partisanship have undermined trust in the peace process. To exacerbate matters, clashes continued into March 2022, with Twic assaults paralleled by Misseriya attacks. The assaults were designed to attack the AAA’s economic base, leading to further displacement and economic strain. The South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) have been hamstrung in their efforts to intervene, with accusations of partisanship undermining their authority.

With official control of Abyei being governed by both Sudanese governments through the prior mentioned agreements, internal conflicts between the Ngok Dinka and Twic Dinka communities have resulted in major security concerns in the region since 2021. Meanwhile, the northern part of Abyei has been under de facto Misseriya occupation for a decade, leading to tensions over resource distribution and humanitarian access. Efforts to mediate between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka have been largely unsuccessful, despite both parties signing an agreement aimed at reducing tension during the transhumance season.


The status of Abyei remains deeply entangled in a complex web of historical grievances, despite the establishment of special administrative arrangements and security protocols, the region continues to grapple with instability and violence, particularly evident in the escalating intercommunal tensions. The presence of UNISFA has provided some semblance of security, but persistent challenges, including violations of agreements and attacks on peacekeeping forces, underscore the fragility of the situation. The failure to find a lasting resolution to the conflict underscores the need for sustained international engagement and concerted efforts towards reconciliation and peacebuilding. Without meaningful progress towards addressing the root causes of the conflict and promoting inclusive governance, the future of Abyei remains uncertain, with the spectre of violence and instability looming large.

Image: Map of the Abyei Area (Source: Sting/derivative work: Nicolay Sidorov/CC BT-SA 3.0 DEED)

About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.