War again threatens a peace between North and South Sudan that took two decades and 2 million lives to reach, and that is slated to result in a new nation – Southern Sudan – in July.
As if on autopilot, Sudan’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir, has once more resorted to force instead of negotiations to settle a dispute in Africa’s largest country. But it’s a blunt tool that won’t, in the long run, serve the interests of his country, or the region and beyond.
Reminiscent of the long tragedy in Darfur, the Sudanese Armed Forces invaded the town of Abyei on May 21 – burning, looting, attacking, and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. As the Obama administration rightly stated, it was a “disproportionate” response to an attack by the South on Sudanese troops.
The status of the Abyei area – whether it belonged to the North or South – was supposed to be decided last January in a referendum, along with a vote determining South Sudan’s future. Those in Abyei never voted because of disagreement over who was eligible, even while nearly 99 percent of people in Southern Sudan chose to secede from the North. The referendum was part of an American-backed peace treaty between North and South in 2005.
Independence for Southern Sudan is set for July 9, though many outstanding issues are still being negotiated between North and South, including how to split oil revenues. It looks as if Khartoum invaded Abyei to improve its bargaining position, and to make Abyei’s unresolved status a fait accompli.
Like many dictators, Sudanese President Bashir keeps pushing until he encounters pushback. As with his neighboring dictator in Libya, the world needs to act with one voice on Abyei – not by dropping bombs, but by exercising muscular diplomacy that includes tougher sanctions.
The international community has condemned the invasion, with the United Nations Security Council demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Sudanese troops. That’s noteworthy, because Council member China, which has significant oil interests in Sudan, has traditionally been Khartoum’s friend, selling it arms.
Beijing, though, quietly supported the peace process, realizing that it must get along with the oil-rich South, and that instability only endangers its own energy supply. Now is the time for China to use its leverage on Khartoum to withdraw.
The crisis also requires consequences, not just condemnation, from the international community. The referendum had put Khartoum on the road to normalization with the West; Bashir must understand that the Abyei invasion puts that path in jeopardy.
Encouragingly, the North and South are talking to each other, this week agreeing on a demilitarized zone along their shared border (if they can define it). And neighboring Ethiopia is apparently ready to send peacekeeping troops to Abyei. Ethiopia is respected by both sides and is eager to head off insecurity that may ricochet from Sudan into its own country.
Bashir must come to realize that military might and the threat of renewed war do not serve his interests. The North and South are mutually dependent on oil, and prolonged instability will interrupt that revenue stream.
And the grab-what-you-want tactic is unlikely to scare Sudan’s restive regions into unity with Khartoum. Rebels in the vast western region of Sudan, for instance, are reportedly emboldened by the referendum in the South.
Bashir’s practice has been to keep the regions in line through military threat and patronage, with state goodies flowing to loyal regional leaders and the capital. Everyone else ekes out a dirt-poor existence. But with a spring cleaning taking place in Arab states just to his north, how long before downtrodden Sudanese get the same idea?
In the long run, only an inclusive government will unite the Sudanese and put this country on the road to greater prosperity. Forcing it is so old school.