x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Internal border dispute casts shadow over pending Sudan split

Clashes in the oil-rich city of Abyei, and the north's new conditions on southern Sudan's secession, have returned the war-torn country to the precipice of war.

With just over six weeks before southern Sudan officially secedes from its northern neighbour, the skirmishes in the border town of Abyei is very bad news. Abyei has oil. It is cosmopolitan, which is to say that both the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south can claim substantial populations there. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, Abyei was lumped in under northern administration. Yet the question of where it finally belonged was meant to be decided by a special referendum back in January.

It seems almost absurd that Sudan as a whole was able to administer a referendum on the south's secession, even successfully polling its large emigrant population, but that Abyei should have defeated it. The obstacle, however, was working out who should be eligible to vote. Sudanese are identifiable by their passports. Political claims to Abyei are fuzzier, largely because of its association with a nomadic northern group, the Misseriya. In the absence of any democratic mechanism, both sides of the dispute have resorted to violence.

For weeks there had been a troop build-up around the town. Tensions came to a head when unknown forces apparently ambushed a northern unit, killing 22. The north naturally blamed the south and sent Sudanese armed forces tanks into Abyei to capture the town. And of course, there are allegations on both sides of the border of further attacks. Meanwhile the north insists that it will not recognise an independent southern Sudan unless it abandons its claim to Abyei. So here we are, once again poised on the brink of civil war, or something like it. Not for nothing is Abyei known as Sudan's Jerusalem.

In fact, though, the comparison with the Arab-Israeli conflict is too kind to northern Sudan. If it were to deny the south's right to exist, it would do so not from the position of the plucky underdog but as the dominant military and economic power.

Unlike Israel, southern Sudan is religiously pluralistic and, thus far, fairly straightforward about its border demands. The north can hardly protest at the theft of land when the south's secession was voted for by 98 per cent of the electorate. When it comes to the most contentious patch of land, the truth is that Abyei's population is in fact largely southern: the demographic pressures on its contested strip all serve the southern cause. Nevertheless, President Omar al Bashir insisted to Reuters this week that: "Abyei is northern Sudanese land ... We will not withdraw from it."

Here's perhaps the most important difference between Israel and southern Sudan. For now, the latter's Muslim inhabitants, numbering about 100,000, live for the most part free of molestation. When Piotr Zalewski went to Juba in southern Sudan for the The Review at the start of the year, he found very few Muslims planning to move north of the border. "We are all African," one told him; "there is no problem between us." Meanwhile the volume of returnees to the south threatened to overwhelm the existing infrastructure. It isn't only that southern Sudan has democratic right on its side; the people are voting with their feet.

Nevertheless, the yet-unborn nation is poor, dangerous and riven with violent tensions unrelated to religion. The issue of Abyei could make things very uncomfortable for its displaced northern inhabitants. The UN view appears to be that southern Sudan is in the wrong as far as the latest round of fighting is concerned. Perhaps so; but it has a greater need for, and a greater right to, Abyei. The matter should of course be put to the vote, as was originally agreed. But if that can't be done, northern Sudan has a choice. It can restart the war, tipping its future neighbour and eternal sparring partner further into instability. Or it can make it a magnificent birthday gift, and put the years of violence behind them both.