With just three weeks to go until South Sudan officially becomes Africa’s newest nation, serious fighting between southern and northern Sudanese forces are already pushing this soon-to-be country to the brink of outright war.
In the past few weeks, troops loyal to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir have taken control of the contested areas of Abyei and South Kordofan, border regions that have strong local support for South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Both Abyei and South Kordofan were supposed to hold local votes this year to determine whether they would join the fledgling state of South Sudan or remain part of the North, but those votes have been delayed. Current fighting seems to put a peaceful, democratic resolution of their status out of reach – for now.
Mediators from the African Union have brokered a tentative peace in Abyei, with Mr. Bashir pledging to withdraw his forces from the town of Abyei and both sides agreeing to a deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers under the AU banner.
President Obama added his weight to calls for a cease-fire today, stressing the need for a political solution.
"There is no military solution," Mr. Obama said in an audio message issued through Voice of America. "The leaders of Sudan and South Sudan must live up to their responsibilities. The government of Sudan must prevent a further escalation of this crisis by ceasing its military actions immediately, including aerial bombardments, forced displacements, and campaigns of intimidation."
Splitting up Sudan into two separate countries was never going to be easy, especially since official borders between the two are not yet demarcated. And there are still questions about how to handle the nomadic communities that shift seasonally between territories that will end up in two different countries. But some human rights groups charge that the recent fighting led by Bashir’s troops is an attempt at “ethnic cleansing,” pushing out ethnic groups that live in the North but politically align themselves with the South.
Satellite Sentinel Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, says it has satellite images showing that the North's army, the Sudanese Armed Forces, burned about one-third of all civilian buildings in Abyei in an attempt to force out ethnic Ngok Dinka residents who tend to side with South Sudan's SPLM.
Northern troops continue to bomb SPLM positions around the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli and UN aid officials report that as many as 65 people may have been killed and 60,000 others displaced. Fighting in the Abyei region has displaced tens of thousands more, most of them seeking shelter across the official border inside South Sudan.
Whether the fighting is an attempt to establish North Sudan’s status as the stronger party in the North-South relationship or to scupper South Sudan’s chances of survival as an independent state remains to be seen. In either case, the effect will be devastating for the leaders of the oil rich, but underdeveloped South Sudan, who already had a daunting task of building a nation from the ground up.