Following the stalemate on the latest round of talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Sudanese Foreign Minister, Mariam Al-Mahdi told media this week that her country has put in a request to the United Nations (UN) to replace Ethiopian troops that make up the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) with soldiers of other countries. Sudan’s move to withdraw its consent on the peacekeeping mission is yet another twist in the ongoing security saga in East Africa.
A decade is indeed a long time. When established ten years ago, UNISFA saw Sudan and South Sudan agree to deploy Ethiopian peacekeeping forces under a United Nations mandate. According to the accounts of Mehari Tadelle, former Program Head at the Addis Ababa office of the Institute of Social Studies, the process was all very rapid. The Addis Ababa Agreement between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the government of Sudan was signed on June 20, 2011. The agreement called on the UN to deploy a peacekeeping mission from Ethiopia that keeps the contested region of Abyei demilitarized until demarcation. The UN Security Council authorized the mission (UNISFA) only five days later on June 25, 2011 under resolution 1990. The deployment of Ethiopian forces that make up the entire UNISFA force also came quick, July 22, 2011, as it came in less than a month after the authorization of the mission.
Tadelle explains that Ethiopia’s vast experience in UN peacekeeping missions, the fact that both parties to the conflict requested Ethiopian forces to be deployed and regional implications of a border war between the two parties contributed to the supersonic speed of deploying UNISFA.
Sudan may, however, have to wait for quite a long time before it could see its wishes come true as media reports yesterday indicated that UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, informed the security council that “he couldn’t provide options to reduce and terminate the nearly 3,700 strong peacekeeping force in the disputed Abyei region on the Sudan-South Sudan border because of differences between the two countries.” News reports indicate that the UN Chief stated that because of difference of opinion between Sudan and South Sudan on the future of UNISFA “no options that would be minimally acceptable to the parties could be formulated.”
Sudan reportedly asked the UN Chief to consider the immediate reduction of UNISFA’s strength “but should proceed gradually over a one-year period” to allow both countries comply with a 2011 agreement on temporary administrative and security arrangements.”
Responding to The Reporter’s queries, UNISFA spokesperson, Daniel Adekera stated that UNISFA will continue to carry out its mandate of keeping peace in Abyei and making the place free of arms until the people “who sent us here gives us another or different instructions or mandate.” He went on to add: “Everything is left to UN Headquarters to decide, whether to accept and react to Sudan’s request and when. UNISFA will continue doing what it has been doing according to the mandate given to it by the United Nation Security Council and in line with the June 2011 Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan.”
The claims by the Sudanese Foreign Minister were a bit amplified in light of the UN Chief’s accounts as he pointed out that Sudan’s government would ask for Ethiopian troops to be withdrawn from UNISFA and be replaced with a multinational African force, should tensions remain high with Ethiopia.
Melaku Mulualem, Researcher at the Institute of Strategic Affairs, remarked that the Sudanese Foreign Minister’s remarks sounded emotional as she made the claims right after the failure of the Kinshasa talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Yonas Adaye (PhD), Director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), agrees with Melaku on the emotional effects of the failed GERD talks on the Sudanese Foreign Minister. The Director stated that the whole situation has shed light on the high moral ground Ethiopia maintains as it resorted to stick by its peacekeeping responsibilities despite its ongoing feud with Sudan. Had Ethiopia asked for withdrawal of its troops from Abyei, it could have reflected badly on itself. However, he noted, maintaining peace between Sudan and South Sudan at this time is a testament to Ethiopia’s high moral standards.
A March 2018 paper entitled “UN Peacekeeping and Host-State Consent” by Sofia Sebastian and Aditi Gorur indicates that managing the often difficult relationships with host-states has been given less attention as compared to resource gap problems, for instance. However, it goes on to explain, it is one of the most strategic issues determining the success or failure of the mission. The argument is that peacekeeping missions need the cooperation of the host-state in their efforts to achieve their goals. Where consent is limited or lacking, the paper points out, it “may serve to undermine the implementation of the mandate and the mission’s credibility, leave missions in prolonged deployments with no clear exit strategy, and put U.N. personnel at risk.”
Withdrawal of consent is a tool of last resort, the paper indicates, often utilized when contradictions between the interests of the government and the mission cannot be reconciled or when expectations are not met.