After Peaceful Vote, Oil Wealth Threatens to Return Sudan to Violence

North and South are seeking control over the unresolved, oil-filled border region of Abyei

Tensions are rising in Sudan, only two months after approving a split that was hoped to improve chances to peace, due to a military build-up in the disputed and resource-rich region of Abyei. In January, South Sudan, in an historic referendum that split Africa's largest country, voted overwhelmingly and peacefully to secede from the North. Political disparity between Sudan's black, Christian and animist South and its Arab, Muslim North, has been a root cause of decades of civil war and of the conflict and genocide in Darfur. From July, a new government shall be established for South Sudan in the capital, Juba, while North Sudan shall remain governed by Khartoum and Omar al-Bashir.

Crucially, one area of Sudan was not included in the referendum. Abyei is a fertile and oil-rich state that straddles the North-South divide, and is desired by both. Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) designated Abyei a Protocol Area of "special administrative status" with its oil revenue split several ways. Under the CPA, Abyei was due to hold its own referendum at the same time as the national referendum to determine whether it would join a potentially independent South Sudan. However in autumn 2010, despite warnings from analysts at the Rift Valley Institute, Khartoum announced that the local Abyei referendum would be postponed.

The postponement of the Abyei referendum may have been one reason that the North-South secession took place without incident. But now, there are incidents. In the last month, George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project has published satellite imagery showing a spike in military activity and attacks on residents in Abyei. UN civilian protection officials are also reporting more clashes in the area and new restrictions on movement of the UN peacekeepers. Last week, the UN Security Council held a private meeting to discuss the worsening situation. Today the UN Mission in Sudan admitted that the increased presence of both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), who are aligned with the North, and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who are aligned with the South, is raising fears that both sides may be planning to try to take Abyei by force. Because Sudan shares borders with some of the continent's more sensitive political and humanitarian hot spots -- Libya, Egypt, Chad, Eritrea, and Ethiopia -- a military conflict or refugee crisis in the area could prove disastrous.

So how to resolve the disputed region? Even if the Abyei referendum were to be held now, it is unlikely to be successful. There is still no agreement over who can be considered a legitimate voting resident of Abyei. During the 2003 genocide and after the signing of the CPA, Abyei became an overcrowded hub of refugees and other non-permanent residents. The majority of permanent residents are the Dinka Ngok people of the South. However Abyei is pasture-rich land and so is a seasonal home to the nomadic Misseriya, who originate from the North, and who typically travel armed. Their chief, Mukhtar Babo Nimir, has demanded that the Misseriya have perennial grazing rights, migration rights, and voting rights in Abyei. Meanwhile, Abyei's most senior administrator and South Sudan's vice-president have both accused the Misseriya of being agents of al-Bashir, intent on disenfranchising and destabilizing the Dinka Ngok, and backed up by the SAF. In these complex circumstances, it is hard to imagine a definition of "legitimate, voting resident of Abyei" that could be the basis of an uncontested local referendum.

The issue of grazing in Abyei is significant in other ways too. Poorly-defined property rights have been identified as a major cause of conflict in Sudan's civil wars in particular, and in Africa in general, according to lawyer and UN consultant Karol Boudreaux. Traditional pastoral systems that were previously mobile but stable and sustainable are facing new threats. Populations in mobile groups are politically vulnerable because they fail to meet the requirements of Western legal models and institutions; productivity among mobile groups is also economically vulnerable from increased competition for land ownership outside the pastoral sector -- such as governments, corporations, and large-scale conservationists.

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MG Zimeta has written for Prospect magazine and elsewhere, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, and currently teaches at a university in Europe

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