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.
Before the civil war between north and south Sudan, from 1983 to 2005, conflicts in Abyei were dealt with by traditional means among its two main communities, the Dinka and the Messeriya Arabs. If a Dinka farmer was killed on Messeriya Arab land, the Arabs would pay compensation to the Dinkas, regardless of who killed him; the same rule applied to the Arabs.
Abdul Rasool Al-Nour, a Messeriya Arab elder who helped to negotiate previous peace agreements between Dinka and Messeriya Arabs, says that the civil war has destroyed the trust between the two communities.
"This is a very dangerous situation, with the nomads fighting the Army of the SPLA," he says. "What we want is a new demarcation of the boundaries by a national committee. I'm hopeful, because I know the relations between the two tribes. I know how much each tribe needs each other. But we have the curse of the oil."
Oil has indeed raised the stakes, as the new boundaries selected by the US-led Abyei Boundary Commission have included a major oil field at Heglieg within the newly demarcated boundaries of Abyei. If the powerful Dinka community in Abyei were to decide in a 2011 referendum to join their southern Dinka brethren, all of that oil wealth could fall into Southern hands.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, signed between the northern government of Khartoum and the mainly southern breakaway SPLA, should have resolved all of this. But even after the two sides decided to form a joint Government of National Unity, distrust has remained. The distrust came to a head in December, when the entire delegation of SPLA ministers pulled out of the Khartoum government, in part over Abyei.
"I think the withdrawal of the SPLM [Sudanese People's Liberation Movement] ministers from government was an alarm bell, that if we did not wake up the two parties to observe the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it will end," says Mansour Khaled, a senior member of the SPLM. "The results will be catastrophic for the whole of Sudan."
Abyei is just one of many points of contention between the two sides. Now politics is affecting relations between Dinkas and the Messeriya Arabs.
"There was an intermingling of traditions, of food, of forms of dress, of language," says Mr. Khaled. "Then, when you add the element of war, and the realignment of communities, the conflict took a different dimension, an ethnic dimension, a religious dimension, and of course, this is a very lethal thing."
According to the original plan, says parliament speaker Ghazi Salahuddin, the Abyei Boundary Commission was supposed to set the border according to a line demarcated by British colonial powers in 1905, which many Messeriya Arabs believe is the seasonal Bahr al-Arab river. Instead, the boundary commission experts couldn't find that boundary in the archival records, and unilaterally decided to locate it in a forested no man's land, which put the oil-rich town of Heglieg within Dinka hands.
"This was a good agreement, but the political reality is that the north regards Abyei as a Kuwait, and the south regards it as a Jerusalem, so we have a problem," says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on background. "So we should go back to arbitration. But right now, there is no progress on Abyei. This isn't a question of a glass half full or a glass half empty. There's no glass."