International attention recently focused on the oil-rich area of Abyei in central Sudan, when forces from the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum clashed. The fighting led to the destruction of towns and villages. Scores of people were killed and tens of thousands displaced. Both the SPLM and the Khartoum rulers claim Abyei as their own. Analysts say the violence has jeopardized the 2005 Sudan peace deal, despite recent agreements aimed at resolving the Abyei border dispute. In the second part of a five-part series on Abyei, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the significance of the area and some of the reasons why there’s so much conflict there.
Abyei is home to the most lucrative oilfields in Sudan and
a pipeline that supplies about half the country’s daily output of 500,000
barrels. The region’s wells generate billions of dollars in profits. SPLM
spokesman Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth says it’s the Khartoum government’s “love” of
oil that’s mostly to blame for the violence in Abyei.
“It is basically oil; they don’t want to let go of oil, because now to continue with this confusion and instability in the area, it is a tool for them to continue getting 100 percent of the oil which is actually produced in Abyei,” he says.
The government of Sudan did not respond to numerous requests from VOA for comment.
It’s been three years since the Comprehensive Peace
Agreement (CPA) ended a two-decade-long war between the south and north that
killed an estimated two million people, but the SPLM and President al-Bashir’s
National Congress Party (NCP) have consistently failed to agree on the borders
or administration of Abyei.
In 2005, an international commission that had been agreed
to by the al-Bashir administration decided that the contentious area was
southern territory. But the Khartoum government has refused to implement the
commission’s findings, resulting in a build-up of tension in Abyei that
exploded about a month ago.
‘Two Sudans’ looking likely
Following national elections that are slated to be held in
Sudan next year, a referendum on whether the south should secede from the north
is scheduled for 2011. Under the terms of the CPA, the people of Abyei will
take part in this vote.
“If Abyei separates, then most of the oil that’s currently
in northern Sudan will be in southern Sudan…. If Abyei is in south Sudan, then
Khartoum gets nothing. So they’re really worried now that push will come to
shove…. This is another reason for its recent actions in Abyei,” says Peter
Moszynski, a British aid worker who’s been working in the Abyei region since
He adds that it’s becoming increasingly likely that Sudan
will split into two separate countries, because of what he describes as
Khartoum’s “intransigence” with regard to the implementation of the peace deal
and the ongoing “tragedy” in Darfur.
According to Moszynski, former SPLM leader John Garang’s
“vision of a united, secular Sudan” has “almost disappeared” since the southern
liberation hero died in a helicopter crash in July 2005.
“According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, both
sides have to work for a united Sudan. But unless the government [in Khartoum]
seems to be more flexible and willing to concede about secularism versus
Islamic law, then it’s very difficult to imagine that the country’s going to
stay together. And in fact these days no one in south Sudan thinks that Sudan
will remain united.”
Symbolism of Abyei
say much more than merely oil money is at stake in Abyei. They point out that
the area is of great historical and symbolic value to both southerners and
“I think even beyond
actual oil, we have an issue of pride, we have an issue of symbolism; we have a
struggle for the soul of the nation, where Abyei becomes a focal point,” says
Daniel Jok Deng, who manages a Sudanese NGO that operates in the region.
He states that various
Sudanese communities have argued over Abyei “for centuries.”
Moszynski adds that
Sudan’s current constitution recognizes Abyei as one of the home areas of the
Dinka – the ethnic group to which most
SPLM leaders belong, and that the al-Bashir administration has therefore long
felt threatened by the people of Abyei.
Deng says there are many reasons why Abyei is a challenge
to the all Sudanese – not the least as a result of “symbolic reasons that have
to do more with the conflict of visions for the country.” Whereas the SPLM
wants Sudan to be a secular democracy, the humanitarian worker says, Khartoum
remains bent on maintaining an Islamic autocracy. He’s convinced that Abyei
will remain at the heart of this battle.
talking about a long, controversial and turbulent history here. Abyei has
actually been called a microcosm of the country, partly because it is the
meeting point of religions and cultures – specifically Islam and Christianity.
In fact the Dinka Ngok, who are the indigenous inhabitants of Abyei, are a
largely Christianized community, and bordering to the north are the Arab nomads
of central Sudan – the Misseriya and the Bagara Arabs.”
says down the years, and for cultural, racial and religious reasons, the Ngok
Dinka have become allied with the SPLM while the Arab nomads have supported the
rulers in Khartoum. He describes Abyei as a “frontline.”
a frontline of resistance to the policies of the old Sudan. And when I say the
‘old’ Sudan, I’m talking about the Sudan where there are different classes of
citizenship. So you have the first class citizens who are those who are pure
Arab and practice Islam. On the bottom of the citizenship chain you have the
Christians, or the so-called animists, who do not speak Arabic. They would be
considered the lowest class of [Sudanese] citizen, with several steps in
some respects, says Deng, there’s an attitude among both sets of authorities in
the north and south that “he who wins the battle for Abyei, wins the whole
Moszynski agrees, especially in the case of the SPLM:
“Abyei is simply too important…. to the leadership, and too important to the
philosophy of the movement, for them to let it go.”
War in the north boosts Khartoum’s concern
says the northern government has been controlling the “center of power” in
Sudan, including in Abyei, since 1905.
exactly 100 years after the signing of the CPA, Abyei was annexed from the
south to the north. It was administered as a county of the northern state. For
it to join the south again would symbolically represent the northward push of
the southern influence. This has never happened before.”
Deng continues: “Never has their [Khartoum’s] southward
push been reversed. The war has always been in the south; the war has always
been fought on southern soil. It’s only now, since the Darfur crisis, that we
are recognizing that this war that started in the south has actually now taken
root in the north, and it’s taken a life of its own.”
He says another reason
for Khartoum’s attack on Abyei is the government’s desire to demonstrate that
it still has the ability to crush resistance to it, and to stop rival forces
from advancing into what it continues to regard as its territory.
says in attacking Abyei, the al-Bashir government has largely been motivated by
fear that it’s losing its grip on the area.
Deng maintains that the conflict in Sudan is no longer as
“simple” as before, when it was seen as a “straight shootout” between the south
and the north. Analysts also say what they call Khartoum’s paranoia also
increased after an attack earlier this year by rebels – allegedly supported by
Chad – on areas close to Khartoum.
“This was a real wake up call, a real slap in the face for Khartoum. And I don’t think it’s such a big coincidence that the attack on Abyei happened shortly afterwards,” says Deng.