Observers continue to express concern that Sudan is on
the brink of a return to a full-scale civil war, despite ongoing attempts to
defuse tension between opposing forces in the south and the north of the
country. In 2005, a peace agreement ended more than two decades of conflict
between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President Omar
al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) government in Khartoum. But relations
are once again strained after clashes in the oil-rich area of Abyei, which is claimed
by both the SPLM and the NCP. The two parties have since agreed to have
international arbiters resolve the dispute. But scores of people have been
killed and tens of thousands remain displaced. In the first part of a five-part
series on Abyei, VOA's Darren Taylor reports on the aftermath and
context of the latest outbreak of violence in Sudan.
Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, one of the SPLM's chief negotiators
with the Khartoum government, says it's going to take "many years" to rebuild
"It is actually a no
man's land now," he says. Gatkuoth blames President al-Bashir's Sudan Armed
Forces for "razing" the town, but the Khartoum government says it was provoked
into attacking Abyei when the SPLM began "flooding" the region with fighters –
a claim the southerners deny. The United States government says both parties
are responsible for the flare-up.
Roger Winter, who was
the US Special Representative to Sudan from 2001 to 2006 and helped to write
the protocol about Abyei in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA),
recently returned from a visit to the area on behalf of the Enough Project, in
He says Abyei has
"virtually has ceased to exist. The population of the town is entirely gone….
The markets and the buildings, the houses, the residential homes and so forth
were entirely burned."
Winter is adamant that
the destruction of Abyei should never have happened: "In theory, the town
should have been largely demilitarized" in terms of the peace deal. But forces
from both the north and south have remained in the contentious region, not
wanting to allow their rivals complete authority over Abyei.
Winter says at the time of the violence in the area,
"there were some police capacities in town, and then there was what's called
the Joint Integrated Unit, which consisted of soldiers from the government in
Khartoum, and soldiers that represented the government of southern Sudan. It's
called the Joint Integrated Unit, but it was neither 'joint' nor 'integrated.'
They were actually two separate groups of soldiers."
Winter says because of this situation Abyei has remained
"extremely tense," despite the peace agreement.
United Nations soldiers, mainly from Zambia, were also in
Abyei to try to keep the peace. But they were unable to do so.
"Those U.N. soldiers largely remained in their barracks
area, in the U.N. compound, a secure area with machine gun posts around the
perimeter and barbed wire and such. So mainly they were confined there," Winter
comments. "When we talked to the civilian administration of the U.N., they said
that they had not been able to go into the town of Abyei itself (because) it
was considered unsafe, (and) when they tried they were turned back by the
personnel of Brigade 31, which is the government force that did most of this
Winter blames the Abyei conflagration largely on the
Khartoum government. He points out that three years ago, an international
commission, agreed to by the al-Bashir administration, set the area's
boundaries, giving much of the oil-rich territory to the SPLM. The southerners,
though, continually declared their willingness to share oil profits with
Khartoum. Nevertheless, al-Bashir's NCP refused to implement the commission's
decisions, saying only that it had "exceeded the scope of its duties."
Gatkuoth says Khartoum has continued to reap the oil
revenue for itself. There's also been no local governance in Abyei because the
two parties have failed to agree on a structure to administer the region. So
residents have been deprived of essential services and hardly any significant
development had taken place in Abyei.
Gatkuoth says Khartoum's insistence that it attacked Abyei
after its troops were "threatened" by SPLM fighters is "not true. It is
actually just another justification for them to attack Abyei. There was no
justification for us to be moving our troops there. The U.N. was there
The SPLM spokesman acknowledges that his party appointed a
chairman for Abyei, Edward Lino, before the clashes but insists that this
shouldn't have provided the Sudan government with an excuse to destroy the
town. Gatkuoth says Lino's presence in Abyei did not result in the SPLM sending
a lot of fighters into the area: "He (Lino) was having no forces; he was just
having bodyguards to protect him – between 15 and 20 people."
Jok Deng, a Sudanese aid worker who operates in Abyei, says a militia from the
local Misseriya Arab group helped the government forces attack the town. He
says the al-Bashir administration is employing the Misseriya to drive out the
local people of Abyei in the same way that it's using the janjaweed militia to
attack the inhabitants of Darfur.
"It is the same strategy. And the janjaweed, who are
the Arab nomads who are fueling the proxy militias of the government in Darfur,
are the same community as the Misseriya and the Bagara and the Rezegat in
Kordofan, who have been used as militias in the Abyei area. So it's very much
the same phenomenon and the same people and the same protagonists, so to
A spokesman on Sudan at the U.S. State Department, Jason
Small, expresses confidence that both the Khartoum government and the SPLM are
moving to ensure that the destruction of Abyei doesn't result in a return to
"I've heard that
both sides were very much shocked by the situation and how quickly it
escalated, and how this really did threaten and show perhaps some areas of
fragility of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement."
Representatives of the
government of Sudan did not respond to numerous requests for interviews regarding
the Abyei issue.