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 barren landscape.

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.

The Misseriya, many of whom served as proxy forces for Khartoum during the war, fear that if the majority Ngok Dinka vote for Abyei to go South, their traditional grazing routes will be cut off. Despite the explicit inclusion of their grazing rights in the 2005 peace agreement, their concerns are manipulated by Northern and Southern politicians to devastating effect.

Second, there are acrimonious fault lines within Sudan's shaky coalition government. Northerners fear that if they concede Abyei, they will not only lose huge oil reserves, but also other contested areas across the country.

Already hamstrung by a dangerous war in Darfur, Khartoum will do everything in its power to keep the area from becoming the first domino to fall. Southerners, while publicly disavowing a return to war, nevertheless preserve their own unity by provoking confrontation with the North and are also desperate to hang on to Abyei's resources.

Third, the international community seems unable or unwilling to keep armed violence at bay. Despite fielding the world's largest peacekeeping mission to the region, even the UN Security Council appears powerless to act. And while Sudanese political parties wrangle over the question of oil-sharing, the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka feel excluded and restless.

If the Abyei question is to be satisfactorily resolved, at a minimum, senior politicians and military personnel must stop exploiting local tensions. Likewise, people displaced by the recent round of fighting must be helped to voluntarily return to their homes. Ethnic groups in Abyei have coexisted, and will continue to do so as long as they are given an opportunity to participate in local governance.

A "road map" was agreed on in early June with provisions to establish an international tribunal to settle the Abyei question. But Khartoum needs even more pressure to meet the terms and improve the situation on the ground. Likewise, the expansion of UN peacekeepers in and around Abyei, and training for newly deployed integrated North-South forces, could convert a symbolic presence into a proactive force.

To avert war, Khartoum urgently needs to adhere to signed agreements, share resources, and show military discipline.

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. He teaches at the University of Oxford and the University of Geneva

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