Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Abyei Factor

South Sudan’s transition to independence was never going to be easy.  The people’s overwhelming desire for secession from the North expressed in January’s referendum was only the start.  The following month, disgruntled militias opposed to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) autonomous government, set off a vicious spate of killings and reprisals which this week crossed the grim milestone of 1000 deaths.  The violence has included the murder World Food Programme staff, prompting the organisation to withdraw from large swathes of the state-to-be and leaving some 240 000 people without critical food rations.  Some commentators are now speculating that as violence and hunger spreads, the Republic of South Sudan could collapse as soon as it comes into being on July 9th.

AbyeiWorryingly, this may not even be the biggest threat that the international community’s newest member faces.  After initially declaring that he would formally recognise the imminent declaration of independence, the (North) Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is now rolling back on his commitment, due to disputes surrounding the oil-rich region of Abyei.  As part of the peace agreement that ended the two-decade-long Sudanese Civil War and led to the Southern referendum, Abyei was set to hold its own plebiscite.  However, neither the buoyed South nor the wounded North has been prepared to make any compromise in detailed talks and consequently the vote yet to take place.  Ominously, as fighting spreads across Abyei, Al-Bashir has openly stated that his dictatorial government will “never ever recognise” an independent South Sudanese state that includes it.

Already many analysts had suggested that the indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashirand his henchmen had a hand in the South’s current instability - well founded claims given their long and abhorrent record of destabilising neighbours through funding and arming various violent militias.  Refusing to recognise the new republic could however, mark a dramatic and dangerous shift from unofficial interference to re-inciting full scale warfare.  One way or another the South is seceding and if the North fails to accept this, a regional conflict dragging in not only the two states but close neighbours and the UN Peacekeeping force currently stationed in the middle, seems almost an inevitability.

Key players in the faltering peace deal are rapidly taking visible steps to ensure that this does not happen.  Today’s lifting of US sanctions on a bank responsible for much of al-Bashir’s financial backing, whilst not formally a response to the situation, was almost certainly designed to bring the tyrant ‘back on-side’.  There is certainly a strong chance that the move was accompanied by direct communication from the Obama administration, especially considering that the US is still holding out the prospect of removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, should the South’s secession pass off smoothly. 

Still it remains to be seen whether such moves will be enough to avoid a fresh North-South conflict come July and the situation is further complicated by continuing state violence in the Western Region of Darfur.  Ignoring the calls of activists worldwide, international heavyweights have recently provided only vocal opposition to the genocide there, not wanting to jeopardise their position in negotiations over Southern Independence;  however this stance will become increasingly difficult to maintain as Darfurians seek to replicate events in Tunisia and Egypt by organising mass protests.  If the Sudanese government continues its massacres in Darfur, nations such as the USA and UK may be compelled to halt their lucrative economic overtures to Al-Bashir, thus reducing their influence on issues of territory and secession –including those concerning Abyei.

The birthday of the Republic of South Sudan is little over two months away – yet a peaceful transition still seems a long way off.  Whilst stability and aid for the South is crucial, Abyei is quickly emerging as the key issue.  The ten and a half thousand square kilometre territory  could yet be the cause of a catastrophic military conflict that would dramatically overshadow even the worse breakdown of order in the new state. With the clock ticking and a genocidal dictator sitting at the negotiating table, every party involved is going to have to pull out all the stops over the coming weeks. 

Abyei South Sudan

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