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
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. …