Conflict over Abyei: Why Sudan Stands “Close to the Precipice of War”

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In the last year, to visit Sudan has been to undertake an exercise in schizophrenia. In the run-up to a referendum in January on whether to split Africa’s largest country in two, the mostly Christian south was – against all odds – about to pull off a peaceful and credible referendum on independence, despite medieval poverty and barely existing as a government or a nation. Even more remarkable, given that much of Sudan’s oil lay in the south, the mostly Muslim north, headed by an indicted war criminal, President Omar al-Bashir, was going to accept the south’s choice. That success was a triumph for the patient efforts of diplomats from across Africa, the West and Asia who had achieved rare global unity in their attempts to end more than half a century of hostility between north and south, something that had cost 2 million lives. (You can see our piece from the time here.)

But outside the capitals of Khartoum in the north or Juba in the south, a few days spent in the scorching heat of Abyei would ensure all hope evaporated. Here was a flea-bitten town on the putative border between north and south claimed by both sides. Neither side’s case was obviously superior to the other: while Abyei’s settler townsfolk – from the Ngok Dinka tribe – saw themselves as southerners, a group of pastoralists who used the land around Abyei for seasonal grazing – the Misseriya – backed the north. The two sides had clashed frequently in the past, as the graves of southern fighters that littered the dry brush around Abyei attested. Further complicating the issue: the area had oil; and at independence in 1956, the Ngok Dinka’s headman initially sided with the north, only to later switch allegiance to the south.

In the run-up to the January vote, neither side was giving an each inch. A vote on whether Abyei would join north or south (something referendum organizers had wisely separated out from the bigger poll) was postponed indefinitely since neither side could even agree on who – whether Ngok Dinka alone, or Ngok Dinka and Misseriya – should vote. The Misseriya were massing to the north, reinforced with weapons and numbers by the northern army. In Abyei, people were holding daily rallies at which they declared themselves ready to die for their land while the south’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, conducted secret patrols on the town’s outskirts. The presence of national armies on both sides of the border was particularly ominous. Abyei looked certain to blow sooner or later, and with the full might of both north and south in the fray, there was no logical reason why Abyei would not ignite a wider conflagration, and re-start Africa’s longest-running war all over again.

With grim inevitability, that undeniable logic now appears to be taking hold. On Sunday, the north’s army advanced south, captured Abyei and forced tens of thousands of Ngok Dinka to flee. The advance followed two days of skirmishes, artillery fire and at least one air raid, and an initial ambush last Thursday by southern troops on northerners in which 22 of Khartoum’s soldiers were killed. The UN condemned that first assault as “criminal.” On Sunday, UN ambassadors from the US, France and Russia called on the north to withdraw immediately from Abyei. Senator John Kerry, who has acted as envoy for US President Barack Obama in the region, warned: “Sudan stands ominously close to the precipe of war.”

At the January referendum, the south voted overwhelmingly for independence, a status that will become formal on July 9. What was a moment of joy quickly reverted to months of more familiar doubt and anxiety as southern warlords who felt the Dinka would unfairly dominate the world’s newest country broke violently from the SPLA. A series of battles between the SPLA and at least four renegades have now cost thousands of lives. Added to that is additional bloodshed north of the prospective border, where several militias loyal to the south now find themselves on what, for them, is the wrong side of the new dividing line.

Now, seven weeks out from South Sudan’s birth, all-out war looms again. Freedom never comes free. But in South Sudan the price of freedom looks ever higher, and the purpose of it – freedom to kill each other, apparently – ever less clear.