In Sudan, Stability or Civil War?

Article excerpt

While the world seems focused on the International Criminal Court's request to arrest Sudan's president Omar al Bashir for genocide, a single dusty town in central Sudan may hold the key to the country's future stability.

At first glance, Abyei seems much like any other settlement in Africa's largest country. Bleating goats are routinely chased off its runway so that fixed-wing airplanes can land. A few charred huts and dilapidated market stalls distinguish it from an otherwise barren landscape.

But it is what is below the ground that matters. Nestled in central Sudan, Abyei sits atop more than a quarter of the country's estimated 6.4 billion barrels of oil. It is the cornerstone of Sudan's oil sector.

Not surprisingly, the determination of the area's "boundary" was never satisfactorily resolved during peace negotiations that ended decades of civil war in 2005.

Despite the peace agreement between the North and South, bloody clashes erupted over the control of Abyei and oil-rich land nearby. Consequently, it's more ghost village than booming oil town now.

In the shadow of escalating violence in Darfur and Chad, Abyei caught the international community by surprise. During heavy fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in May, up to 60,000 locals were forced to flee.

Ominously, a symbolic North-South force created as a show of national unity was also embroiled in the fighting. United Nations peacekeepers were rapidly evacuated from the town despite their explicit mandate to protect civilians.

Not only did the clashes lead to suffering, they soured talks underway between the US government and Sudan's coalition government.

Although Sudan's 2005 peace agreement outlined Southern rights to oil revenues and a referendum for self-determination by 2011, the thorny issues of deciding on Abyei's "ownership" and setting its boundary were quietly deferred.

In a US-drafted protocol, locals were given the right to decide whether the town should remain in the North or merge with the South. In the meantime, its boundary was demarcated by a special commission, whose ruling was rejected outright by Khartoum. The area was left without an administration. With the future of Abyei uncertain, tensions began to rise.

At least three interwoven factors could trigger renewed conflict in Abyei and all-out war in Sudan.

First, ethnic feuds are escalating between competing groups, including Misseriya nomads and Ngok Dinka pastoralists. …

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