In Sudan, another conflict could eclipse Darfur
The oil-rich region of Abyei could become the next flash point between Arab and African Sudanese.
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This potential flash point is Abyei, a small, ethnically diverse enclave on the border between the Arab north and the African south. Now, a dispute is under way over who should control the district – a power struggle infused with ethnic rivalry, marginalization, politics, and greed.
Split between Arabic-speaking nomads and non-Arabic-speaking farmers, Abyei is a territory where cultures once blended, but where a sharp dividing line has been drawn between two political forces that fought a civil war to a draw.
After a failed US-led mediation effort, Abyei has become a rallying cry for war. What's at stake? Pastureland, oil wells, and the continuation of a three-year-old peace deal that ended the 20-year civil war that killed more than 2 million Sudanese.
"It's like Kashmir, where you have two big entities – the National Congress party leading the country from Khartoum for nearly 20 years and you've got major rebel groups on the other side, and both sides will not compromise on Abyei," says John Prendergast, an antigenocide advocate for the Enough Project in Washington. "Then you add in oil, with the industry involved," and that raises the stakes even higher.
"Unless there is a very significant form of external mediation, backed by significant carrots and sticks, we're not going to see a resolution," he adds.
"There is no interest, no desire on the part of the government to go back to war, because there is nothing to be gained from it," says Ghazi Salahuddin, the parliamentary leader of the National Congress Party, which has a majority of seats in the national legislature. As for the south, he adds, "My assumption is that they have enough sense to realize that war is not in their interests. It will be a disaster for the south and the whole of Sudan."
But the conflict may have already begun. On Dec. 21, armed nomadic herdsmen – reportedly driving pickup trucks with mounted machine guns – clashed with troops of the Southern Sudanese military (the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, or SPLA) near the town of Al-Miram. Thirty of the Arab nomads were killed in the subsequent fighting.
A general lack of control of security has even attracted Islamist rebels from the nearby province of South Darfur. Last year, members of the Justice and Equality Movement, a Darfur-based rebel group, launched attacks against Chinese-run oil wells in Abyei and later launched raids against peacekeepers from the African Union.