Abyei: The Flashpoint of a Sudanese Maelstrom

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By mid-January, the world heaved a massive sigh of relief when a hotly anticipated referendum over the secession of southern Sudan passed with minimal violence. In July, South Sudan is set to formally become an independent state, sundering in half Africa’s biggest country. But as more high-profile conflicts raged in the Ivory Coast, Libya and in the Middle East, Sudan slipped back to its accustomed place in the margins of global attention, with the media devoting little time to the serious molehills and potholes on South Sudan’s road to nationhood — clashes between myriad factions fighting over the future status quo have led to hundreds of reported deaths.

Lingering conflicts over the border between North and South, citizenship rights and, most strategically, the flow of oil, have led to a crisis over the region of Abyei, which is currently in the North but claimed by the South. It’s a microcosm of a larger divide — contested by Arab Misseriya nomads loyal to the mostly Muslim north and pastoralists from the Ngok Dinka ethnic group, Christians keen to join the largely Christain south. Abyei was meant to hold its own referendum, but that has been indefinitely delayed. Battles have raged in recent days between rival armed factions, leading to at least 14 dead and prompting the International Crisis Group, a global watchdog, to issue an urgent communique May 8 warning that Abyei was reaching a “tipping point, endangering lives and the fragile peace in Sudan.” Read the full statement here.

A day later, North and South Sudan agreed to pull back security forces from Abyei and let the region be patrolled by a joint taskforce as stipulated by a deal brokered U.N. mandate. Only then can a referendum take place that will decide Abyei’s future fate. But it’s unclear whether the armies and proxies of both North and South will actually abide by these guidelines and, with much at stake for both, the augurs are grim. In 1948, the U.N. called for a referendum in the disputed territory of Kashmir, but that was contingent on the withdrawal of Pakistani and Indian forces — a contingency that has never been met. Impoverished, troubled Sudan can hardly afford its own Kashmir in its midst.

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