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.

In the case of Abyei, poorly-defined property rights may also be a ruse exploited by either the North or South to gain access to potential oil wealth. In an attempt to preempt such maneuvering, an international tribunal re-drew Abyei's boundaries to make the region smaller, giving control of the Heglig and Bamboo oilfields to the North, while leaving the Diffra oilfield to the smaller South. However, this compromise, far from appeasing al-Bashir, may in fact risk simply empowering him. In 2003, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive investigation on how Khartoum had used oil wealth and the prospect of oil wealth to militarize the areas around oilfields, and to massacre or displace indigenous populations there, including Darfur, in collusion with foreign oil companies.

This does not mean that granting the oil wealth to the South would establish everlasting peace and prosperity. One consequence of al-Bashir's "scorched earth" policy towards the South is that the region -- and soon-to-be independent country -- has poor infrastructure. If the new government in Juba were to gain such oil wealth, two possible negative consequences might arise. South Sudan might become a "rentier state," one where large foreign inflows to a government makes them less accountable to their citizens, a relationship which can fuel corruption and domestic ethnic conflict. Also, the nascent economy of South Sudan may be vulnerable to "commodity dependence", relying on oil production without diversifying its economic portfolio. The end result, warns Professor Kenneth Omeje for ACCORD, is a South Sudan that could be as "dysfunctional" as its forebear and neighbor, North Sudan.

In the absence of good governance, it is not even clear how much oil there is in Abyei. "Oil is a fairy tale," the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski famously wrote in his 1992 book Shah of Shahs, "and like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie." In the case of Abyei, it may be a lot of a lie: this month Global Witness alleged that Sudan's oil production -- and oil revenues -- had been consistently and significantly under-reported by the North, who stand to profit from undeclared oil income. On the other hand, although BP calculates that oil production in Sudan overall is increasing, ICG has estimated that oil production in Abyei has declined since 2006. This would mean that Abyei's actual and relative value may be exaggerated, and making its "oil-rich" status a different kind of fairy tale.

In the 1980s, when economists began to discuss a potential "resource curse" afflicting the economic and political development of countries with significant natural resources, it seemed improbable that a country might actually come to regret its resource wealth. But history now suggests otherwise. "Oil is devils' excrement and will bring us nothing but ruin," warned Venezuelan oil minister and co-founder of OPEC, Perez Alfonso: now Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, and also a poverty rate of nearly 40%. Before January's referendum, Sudan was the tenth largest country in the world in terms of landmass. Despite this, and despite Sudan's 40-year history of bloodshed and political instability, North and South were able to conduct the referendum and agree on secession with a show of relative peace. Now, just two months later, the international community stands poised for potential North-South conflict over Abyei, a small rural province the size of Cyprus, for oil and pasture that is of questionable size and value. In a way, Sudan's resource curse may have already started. Meanwhile, reports continue to drift in of a military build-up in Abyei. "What a silence when you are here. What / a hellish silence," wrote Hungarian poet János Piliszky. "You sit and I sit. / You lose and I lose."

Photo: Students from southern Abyei demonstrate on behalf of a referendum to determine their region's fate. By Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

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