Ever since Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, Muslim Khartoum has been at war with the Christian/animist south. It has been a long and bloody conflict in which two million people have died. A so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 finally allowed for a referendum in January this year in which 98 percent of the Southern Sudanese voted to go their own way. But tensions and troubles continue to dominate in the border regions especially the disputed oil-rich Abyei whose status remains unclear after independence.Khartoum seized Abyei’s main town on 21 May, causing tens of thousands of people to flee the area, triggering an international outcry and raising fears of open conflict. For the last week, Ethiopia has hosted a peace conference between the Sudanese government and Southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Finally former South African president Thabo Mbeke announced yesterday he had brokered a ceasefire in Abyei to demilitarise the region and bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers. Mbeke said the northern Sudanese military, the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Ethiopian officials would meet to settle on a mandate for Ethiopian peacekeeping forces to be deployed in the region.
While it is culturally analogous to the rest of the south, Abyei has geological features that make it attractive to Khartoum. It sits on top of the Muglad Basin, some 120,000 km2 of land which home to the Muglad Basin Oilfield. Khartoum has built a 1540km long pipeline – with Chinese and Indian help – to carry 150,000 barrels of crude every day to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The bulk of Sudan’s oil (proven reserves estimated at five billion barrels in 2007) is in the south at Abyei and Heiglig. The 2005 deal allowed for 75 percent of oil revenue sharing from the southern fields (but with no reciprocal agreement from northern fields). Khartoum also fudged the figures to avoid sharing revenue and much wealth has been skimmed off by the capital’s kleptocracy. The north also has all of the oil infrastructure with fulcrums at Khartoum and Port Sudan.
The 2005 CPA agreement is not clear on Abyei. The region is administered by a committee of northern and southern Sudanese, with security provided by so-called Joint Integrated Units, groups of soldiers from both sides. But it is racked by disagreements and violence. The Bashir regime has used the instability of Abyei to delay full independence. Bashir ordered the army to invade the town after fighting in the ethnically mixed region gave him a pretext. He sent artillery, dozens of tanks and thousands of soldiers in and shelled a UN compound. They claimed the invasion was a response to attacks by southern forces which killed northern soldiers.
The new agreement puts a bandage on Abyei but does little to stop the wounds from re-opening elsewhere along a porous 3,500km border. Darfur is a well known trouble spot as is Southern Kordofan. There the Sudanese Army have been on the rampage in the Nuba Mountains. Tens of thousands of rebel fighters have refused the government’s order to disarm and instead have disappeared into the mountains. The army has sealed off the area threatening to shoot UN helicopters if they intervene.
The fighting in Kordofan and Abyei has done nothing to change the plans for 9 July. But the new nation could start its life with a humanitarian catastrophe with half a million people on the move. Lise Grande, the top UN humanitarian official in the south said last week they needed $200 million to deal with a looming refugee crisis. “It really is a race against time at this stage because with the rainy season at its height, in probably less than two weeks large parts of the south will be inaccessible so we need to do it right now,” Grande said. “We can’t wait.”