Three days ago, I wrote about fears of renewed civil war in Sudan. I focused on two problem areas: ambivalent rhetoric from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) about whether it would accept the results of an imminent referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, and continued tension in Abyei, a border region whose own referendum was recently postponed. The NCP’s rhetoric appears to have softened – an assistant to President Omar al Bashir, Nafie Ali Nafie, gave a statement yesterday on the (big) referendum that seemed to be “the first acknowledgement from the northern elite that the south would likely secede after a looming referendum” – but the situation in Abyei remains chaotic. Trouble in Abyei means trouble for Sudan.
It’s not just me who worries about Abyei. Yesterday the UN Security Council issued a statement on Sudan’s referenda in which it “note[d] with deep concern the absence of an agreement on Abyei” and “strongly urge[d] the parties to calm rising tensions in Abyei, to urgently reach agreement on Abyei and other outstanding [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] issues, and to resolve critical post-referenda issues including the border, security, citizenship, debts, assets, currency and natural resources.” The US, meanwhile, “called on Sudan to halt air attacks on the border with southern Sudan.” Some bombs have landed near Abyei, stoking fears of conflict and leading Northern and Southern elites to exchange recriminations.
UN peacekeepers are in Abyei, but UN officials are showing their nervousness about the situation:
UN soldiers have been redeployed to Abyei, Southern Kordofan and the border of the Upper Nile and White Nile states, [Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain] LeRoy said. The peacekeeping mission also has “stepped up its protection activities through joint civil-military patrols and initiatives to foster local-level reconciliation,” he said.
“We must emphasize that the presence of UN troops alone will not be enough to prevent a return to war, should widespread hostilities erupt,” LeRoy said.
LeRoy said that resolving the conflict in Abyei is critical to the overall goal of peace between North and South Sudan.
As international bodies warn about the potential repercussion of tension in Abyei, ethnic hostilities in the surrounding area are intensifying. Rivalries between nomadic Misseriya Arabs (spellings vary) and other groups, such as farmers from the Ngok Dinka tribe, have worsened in tandem with political struggles around Abyei. Now a faction within the Misseriya has made a dramatic political statement in South Kordofan, the region in which Abyei partly sits:
Armed men from the Sudanese Messiria tribe have taken almost 1,000 people hostage in a tribal feud over blood money.
The hostages were travelling from Khartoum, the capital, to the South, to vote in the January 9 referendum that is expected to lead to the breakup of Africa’s largest nation when they were seized.
The Messiria tribesmen stopped their convoy of about 150 cars in the northern state of South Kordofan.
They said they plan to hold the hostages until the government of the South Sudan’s Unity State pays a retribution for the killing of several Messiria shepherds earlier this year.
The government of South Sudan said that negotiations are ongoing and that a solution might be reached soon.
Incidents like these raise the tension in and around Abyei. With some Misseriya Arabs and the government of South Sudan openly disputing agreements from the recent past, disputes over the vote to come could escalate. The ultimate fear is that ethnic violence in Abyei will draw North and South Sudan into a full-scale war.
The UN, the US, and other international observers are clearly paying attention to Abyei. If the North lets the South secede peacefully after the main referendum, perhaps the tension in Abyei will dissipate. But for the immediate future, Abyei remains a powderkeg.