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In Sudan , another conflict could eclipse Darfur

The oil-rich region of Abyei could become the next flash point between Arab and African Sudanese.

ICC Note

This article discusses the root cause of potential for large scale conflict between South and North Sudan . Such conflict would be devastating for both parties besides jeopardizing the peace agreement that brought the war between the two to an end.

By Scott Baldauf

February 27, 2008 Sudan (The Christian Science Monitor)-Darfur is the more recognizable conflict, but another, arguably more explosive, battle is brewing in Sudan .

This potential flash point is Abyei, a small, ethnically diverse enclave on the border between the Arab north and the African south. Now, a dispute is under way over who should control the district – a power struggle infused with ethnic rivalry, marginalization, politics, and greed.

Split between Arabic-speaking nomads and non-Arabic-speaking farmers, Abyei is a territory where cultures once blended, but where a sharp dividing line has been drawn between two political forces that fought a civil war to a draw.

After a failed US-led mediation effort, Abyei has become a rallying cry for war. What’s at stake? Pastureland, oil wells, and the continuation of a three-year-old peace deal that ended the 20-year civil war that killed more than 2 million Sudanese.

“It’s like Kashmir, where you have two big entities – the National Congress party leading the country from Khartoum for nearly 20 years and you’ve got major rebel groups on the other side, and both sides will not compromise on Abyei,” says John Prendergast, an antigenocide advocate for the Enough Project in Washington. “Then you add in oil, with the industry involved,” and that raises the stakes even higher.


But the conflict may have already begun. On Dec. 21, armed nomadic herdsmen – reportedly driving pickup trucks with mounted machine guns – clashed with troops of the Southern Sudanese military (the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA) near the town of Al-Miram. Thirty of the Arab nomads were killed in the subsequent fighting.

Before the civil war between north and south Sudan , from 1983 to 2005, conflicts in Abyei were dealt with by traditional means among its two main communities, the Dinka and the Messeriya Arabs. If a Dinka farmer was killed on Messeriya Arab land, the Arabs would pay compensation to the Dinkas, regardless of who killed him; the same rule applied to the Arabs.


Oil has indeed raised the stakes, as the new boundaries selected by the US-led Abyei Boundary Commission have included a major oil field at Heglieg within the newly demarcated boundaries of Abyei. If the powerful Dinka community in Abyei were to decide in a 2011 referendum to join their southern Dinka brethren, all of that oil wealth could fall into Southern hands.


According to the original plan, says parliament speaker Ghazi Salahuddin, the Abyei Boundary Commission was supposed to set the border according to a line demarcated by British colonial powers in 1905, which many Messeriya Arabs believe is the seasonal Bahr al-Arab river. Instead, the boundary commission experts couldn’t find that boundary in the archival records, and unilaterally decided to locate it in a forested no man’s land, which put the oil-rich town of Heglieg within Dinka hands.

“This was a good agreement, but the political reality is that the north regards Abyei as a Kuwait , and the south regards it as a Jerusalem , so we have a problem,” says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on background. “So we should go back to arbitration. But right now, there is no progress on Abyei. This isn’t a question of a glass half full or a glass half empty. There’s no glass.”


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