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 1981.

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

Analysts 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 northerners.

?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.

?We?re 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.?

Deng 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.?

?It?s 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 between.?

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 war.?

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

Deng says the northern government has been controlling the ?center of power? in Sudan, including in Abyei, since 1905.

?Almost 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.

Moszynski 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.