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Sudan War Concerns Grow Despite Peace Efforts in Abyei (Pt 5 of 5)

An uneasy calm has returned to the central Sudanese region of Abyei following recent clashes between forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the government in Khartoum. The violence killed scores of people, destroyed towns and villages and displaced tens of thousands of inhabitants. Negotiations between the opposing parties have resulted in a fragile peace in oil-rich Abyei, which is claimed by both the SPLM and the government of President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party. In 2005, the opponents signed a peace accord that ended two decades of civil war between southern and northern Sudan. But following the clashes in Abyei, many observers are concerned that southern Sudan is set to once again plunge into conflict. In the final installment of a five-part series focusing on Abyei, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on this possibility.

Roger Winter, former special representative of the United States to Sudan, says the Abyei violence has the potential to “destroy” the 2005 peace agreement. If this happens, he warns of loss of life on an “unprecedented” scale.

“If the government in Khartoum, through its refusal to implement the Abyei Protocol, causes the peace to fail, the consequences not only for Sudanese civilians generally but for the whole volatile region – including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Central African Republic, Chad, and so forth – all are threatened by what would be massive instability - potentially even the break-up of the state of Sudan.”

Winter adds that should war again break out in the south, it’ll “dwarf” the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, where human rights activists say up to 400,000 people have been killed by Sudanese government and proxy forces since 2003.

Winter says the previous war in southern Sudan killed about two-and-a-half million people.

“The implications of the loss of peace by not implementing the Abyei Protocol potentially for the civilians of Sudan are terribly dramatic,” he states.

Sudan ‘builds to war’ before 2011 referendum

Under the terms of the 2005 peace deal, the people of Abyei will vote in 2011 to become part of either southern or northern Sudan. If they vote to be included in the south, as expected, Winter says Khartoum will lose billions of dollars in oil revenue. A British aid worker in Abyei, Peter Moszynski, doubts whether the al-Bashir administration will allow this to happen.

"The problem is that the SPLA is [also] not going to let go of Abyei. So how’s this going to be resolved: Either through diplomacy or through force. Now they’ve already come to blows and everybody’s trying to stop this from disintegrating any further. But there’s not that much confidence and neither side trusts each other anymore,” Moszynski says.

He’s convinced that the al-Bashir government is becoming very uncomfortable at the prospect of the south seceding and becoming a separate country and the north therefore losing a lot of resources. This tension, says Moszynski, is setting the scene for more conflict ahead of the 2011 referendum.

An NGO manager in Abyei, Daniel Jok Deng, says Sudan’s future hinges on the peaceful resolution of the parameters of the north-south border…and by extension, who gets the oil profits.

“A few meters up or down can mean millions of dollars [lost or gained in oil revenues]. If we fail to find a peaceful solution on the Abyei issue, you can also anticipate that we will also fail to demarcate the entire boundary,” Deng warns.

If this happens, he says, there’s a possibility of a “brutal” border war in Sudan. In fact, maintains Deng, signs of a looming war are already “everywhere.” Both the SPLM and Khartoum insist they’re withdrawing their troops from the Abyei border area, but Deng says he sees little evidence of Khartoum pulling back its soldiers: “Forces are still on both sides of the border.”

SPLM spokesman Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth says his party is committed to peace and that Khartoum has promised likewise.

“As of now, the situation is calm in Abyei area, so there is no troop buildup.”

Yet Gatkuoth will not dismiss the possibility of an eventual return to civil war over southern Sudan.

“Of course, [politicians] can say that we are not for war but the situation on the ground will force the people to go to war, because the people of Abyei and of the whole southern Sudan were a bit disturbed by the situation in Abyei. So it can get out of hand even if the leader is not for war,” he says.

Moszynski sees “little common ground” between the SPLM and Khartoum over Abyei.

“Unfortunately I think it indicates that the outlook is bleak. If the outlook [weren’t] bleak, there’d be no reason for people to be arguing about this. The problem is, I think, everyone thinks that whatever happens next, there’s going to be violence. I think that is really worrying for the future of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.”

What must be done to avert war

Winter says there’s still time to prevent a return to full-scale war in Sudan.

“The Bush administration must step up and make sure the international community is doing all it can to bring peace to all of Sudan.”

He adds that the presence of United Nations peacekeepers in Abyei must be “reinforced with a permanent U.N. military and civilian presence to effectively monitor the situation, accurately report conditions on the ground and promote local reconciliation.”

Moszynski says there’s an urgent need for “some kind of an agreement” that refers to all the current conflicts currently in Sudan: “One of the reasons we’ve got where we have is because of the piecemeal nature of the various peace agreements. You had this CPA, which was predominantly for south Sudan but that has separate protocols for Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, etcetera; you have an eastern Sudan agreement that’s completely separate from everything else; you have the whole Darfur situation that’s cut off from the CPA. To resolve any of them you really need to resolve all of it. It’s not enough to just sort of resolve one local difficulty and then go on to the next, because they’re all kind of interrelated.”

According to Deng, the only way for wider conflict to be avoided in Sudan is for “the costs of non-compliance” with the CPA for the al-Bashir administration are made to “outweigh the benefits of non-compliance. If we don’t achieve that balance, we can expect this agreement to be dishonored.”

Analysts say actions against Khartoum, such as U.S. sanctions, aren’t enough to force the government of Sudan to stop violating the peace agreement and attacking Darfur. They say Khartoum continues to benefit massively from oil revenues and also receives economic and political backing from countries like China and Russia.

Gatkuoth acknowledges that as a result of the flare-up in Abyei, the “future of Sudan is now at stake.” Deng says what “really worries” him is that the incident once again “proved that both the SPLA and the Sudan Armed Forces still have the capacity to fight another long war.”

Gatkuoth is concerned that Khartoum will continue to violate the peace agreement. But he says his party at this stage has little choice other than to trust a process that’ll see another set of international arbiters decide the boundaries of Abyei in the near future.

But he says, “If they [the Sudanese government] are going to refuse to accept the results of the referendum, then it is the responsibility of the international community to deal with the National Congress Party, because I am sure that they will not accept the outcome of the referendum and also even the outcome of the Abyei arbitration process.”

Deng says the SPLM has demonstrated “great restraint” in withdrawing its troops from Abyei, and “rededicating” itself to peace. But he’s concerned that the southern Sudanese party may soon feel that the “path of reconciliation is leading nowhere…. If that decision is seen as no longer effective, and if the only option is war, the SPLM is the type of organization that can fight a serious war. So there are realities which mean we must take the possibility of a resumption of war very, very seriously.”