x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Provocation need not lead to war on Sudan border

Since January, when southerners in Sudan voted to secede from the north, border regions like Abyei have been in persistent low-level conflict. But bloodshed here does not mean that open war will follow. If it did, the ceasefire would have been broken long ago.

Some have called it Sudan's Jerusalem. At the weekend, the long-simmering dispute over control of the symbolic region of Abyei erupted again in violence between northern and southern Sudan. Officials in Khartoum said they would sweep Abyei of "illegal" southern forces; in Juba, the new government warned yesterday of a return to war.

Both sides blame each other - in truth, both are probably at fault. "We heard artillery exchanges in Abyei," said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesperson for the UN mission in Sudan, on Friday. "But we don't know who is fighting whom." While Khartoum's forces appeared to be in control of the region yesterday, the situation was still fluid.

Since January's referendum, when southerners overwhelmingly voted to secede from the north, Abyei and other border regions have been in persistent low-level conflict. The fear - now greater than ever - has been that the unresolved border would be the flashpoint to renew the war that ended in 2005.

But bloodshed in the volatile border regions does not mean that open war will follow. If it did, the ceasefire would have been broken long ago. In February, elements of northern Sudan's army turned against each other and dozens were killed; the government in Juba has been fighting defectors from its own ranks in the border states as well. The entire region is troubled by tribal conflicts and local rivalries.

The issue of Abyei continues to prove one of the most intractable problems between the two governments. With some economic importance, Abyei is grounded in resources disputes between the northern Misseriya and southern Dinka ethnic groups. A second referendum in January, to decide whether Abyei would join the north or the south, was postponed precisely because border and voter registration issues could not be resolved.

Both sides will blame each other for the impasse, and Khartoum's offensive has pushed the issue towards open war. But it would be folly if peace hinges on Abyei. The future of both countries depends on the other, with oil-revenue sharing and the demarcation of borders hanging in the balance. They can go to war with each other, but in peace each cannot live without the other.

The US special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, warned last month that a return to war was possible. After this weekend, that prediction carries all the more weight. But as the 2005 ceasefire and the relatively peaceful referendum this year proved, both sides can settle their differences peacefully. If they choose not to, there will be no shortage of provocations to pick from.