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Officials worried about a possible civil war over Abyei, Sudan’s Kashmir

Ahram Online talks with experts and officials on the sedentary and nomadic tribes caught in disputes over oil-rich Abyei between North and South Sudan, as each side moves men in to take the grounds, via fait accompli

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 14 May 2011
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Many economic, political and tribal issues have come together to further complicate the dispute over the Abyei region landlocked between the North Sudan and the nascent state in the South to create a problem akin to India/Pakistan’s Kashmir. As the countdown continues towards official secession in two months, when the division will be celebrated on 9 July, disputes continue between the two sides.

Over the past few days tensions have escalated between the two sides, which observers believe could reignite a civil war worse than the original one between the North and South that was ended with the 2005 Comprehensive Nifasha Peace Agreement.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials have said that despite the nearly unanimous results of the plebiscite for secession recognised internationally and regionally, the North will not recognise the new state of South Sudan on 9 July.

Strong statements from the North angered the southerners, but an official in the South told Ahram Online these statements are inconsequential. Observers believe the sceptre of war in the region is more disconcerting; already there have been some deaths among the two major tribes, the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya and military forces from the North and South are creeping into the region to impose their control there.

Al-Bashir’s bombshell announcement that he may not recognise South Sudan at the official upcoming celebration implies that the new state will be born amid uncertain ties with the North. “If this is the case, it will be their decision,” Deg said. “Recognition is more protocol than a political step. Recognition was confirmed by the results of the referendum with a sweeping majority voting for the independence of the South. Not recognising us will not make a difference; it’s over. More than 40 countries recognise the referendum and the new state, so if the North is being difficult it will have to deal with the consequences.”

Tensions were noted in a statement a few days ago by the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, warning of and denouncing altercations in that region. Ban urged both sides to not unilaterally proclaim sovereignty over the region, since this could undermine attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully, stressing that “military confrontation is unacceptable.”

The political and economic struggles between the North and South are such that “No matter what pretexts are given for the conflict, if things continue as they are it is certain that war will break out,” Sudanese expert on political affairs, Abd Hamad told Ahram Online.

Tribal struggle over Abyei

The Misseriya, a nomadic tribe that consider themselves somewhat Arab, claims no interest in the immense oil revenues in Abyei – one of the richest oil regions. Their nomadic culture and centuries-old tribal traditions are more important to them than black gold.

The Dinka Ngok also seem to care more for their sedentary, farming life than for the oil-rich fields.

Until recently, the Misseriya and Dinka Ngok tribes did not have disputes because of inter-marriage between the two tribes; in fact, it is difficult to tell them apart just by looking at them. Today, these ties have disintegrated and the winds of war have come because political forces in power are manipulating the relationship they have with the tribes for political gains.

Several attempts at a compromise solution were unsuccessful, including both tribes being assigned dual citizenship in the North and South so they can move around and continue their herding lifestyle.

Akram Hossam, an expert on Sudanese affairs at the National Centre for Middle East Studies told Ahram Online that the issue “will complicate matters further, in terms of reaching a settlement between the two sides, despite solutions proposed by the UN and several international initiatives...each side is currently trying to impose a fait accompli by taking control on the ground, which is why military and militia forces from both sides are deploying to Abyei. It is unlikely that they will agree to withdraw these troops in response to recent urging to move out.”

Hossam also argues that the main parties in the quarrel, namely the Misseriya and Dink Ngok tribes, are not playing a major role in resolving the crisis, but instead are being manipulated in the conflict.

For example, the Misseriya rejected the 2009 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which conceded the oil fields to North Sudan, but calls for a controversial area-specific referendum for Abyei residents on whether Abyei should annex itself with the North or the South.

The Dinka Ngoki, who are expected to vote for annexation with the South, argue that Misseriya should not be allowed to vote because they are only in the area for half of the year. The Misseriya would likely vote for Abyei to be annexed with the North, considering the support they receive from the North, and because, of course, they want to be able to enter Abyei unhindered for their cattle to graze in the wetter Southern lands.

The Misseriya, assert that their top priority is freedom to herd anywhere. It was also glaring that they were not represented in the Hague delegation. Hence, any future decision to settle the conflict is likely to be rejected by the Misseriya on the ground, which would complicate any political resolution.

State-level contentions over Abyei

Not surprisingly, the oil pumped from the South to the Red Sea passing through the North is a hot button. It’s expected that the South would receive some revenues, especially that the North is oil deficient in comparison to the South.

Major Deg, political secretary for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) told Ahram Online that the North’s ruling party, the NCP, has compounded the dispute. According to political documents and historical facts, Abyei belongs to the South. “The North is only interested in the oil,” Deg asserted. “The North only exercised administrative control over Abyei because of the region’s proximity to the leadership in the North.”

“We made many suggestions, including dual citizenship, but the North has rejected them,” Deg offered as an example. “We believe that any solution which does not give South Sudan control over this region is unacceptable. Our issue is not the oil, but rather, that sovereign territory belongs to the South. We have large amounts of oil and we don’t mind if the NCP receives a share for having the oil pipelines on its territories in the North, as long as there is no problem in continuing to pump oil through these pipelines. But they want 50 per cent of production, which is unacceptable.”

Abd Hamad, Sudan expert, predicts that relations with West Africa will remain stable as long as there is peace between the North and South, but as tensions escalate countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are likely to side with South Sudan because they would benefit most from the oil resources there.

Hamad points out that the South can impact that North’s share of Nile water, which flows from south to north. In the event of war, for example, the water share of the North could be affected by the demand of the South, which is estimated at more than 18 billion cubic metres. Though water is plentiful in the South - not only because of its relative proximity to the Nile basin, but because of it has a wetter climate than the North, which accumulates in swamps - Hamad expects that once disputes worsen that the water issue will become more heated.

Is civil war inevitable?

Although the drums of war are beginning to sound Deg does not believe that the two sides are at a dead end. He urged the North to be rational and implement the Abyei agreement without conditions or advocate an Abyei plebiscite that is slated to settle issues between the two sides before the country officially divides on 9 July.

“They must understand that the administrative powers they have in that region do not give them the right to annex the region,” he asserts.

South Sudan wants to stop fighting once and for all and focus its efforts on developing the new state, according to El-Sayed El-Badawi, who led the Egyptian delegation to Juba, Sudan this week. Observers are worried that the new state in the South would reject anything Arab, which would make it difficult to overcome the dispute. Deg responded that the South is not inclined either way and its interests will form its relations.

“The South wants good relations with anyone who is keen on keeping it stable,” he declared. “It will seek out its interests and will not be hostile towards any Arab state based on the latter’s disputes with North Sudan or ally itself with those opposing the North. Future relations will be defined by policies in North Sudan, and the South will control its own decisions and will.”

Meanwhile, the North is warning against instability in the South out of fear that the latter will seek the support of African states, giving them more leverage than the North. The NCP does not want the South to be stable because this leverage would make southerners more influential in the conflict.

Hossam noted that most studies and reports about the future of the conflict indicate that Abyei will become another Kashmir, and will continue being a hotspot between the two sides and neither will accept a compromise.

Partition has made the South rich in oil and water and the North will not accept going without, especially that most wells which pump to the Red Sea are expected to run out in the next 20 years, making Abyei contentious not only for the sedentary and nomadic peoples of the area, but for the governments of this new era of North and South Sudan.

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