Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2008
Issue No. 926
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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After a week of warfare and mayhem, it is left to international arbiters to resolve the Abyei conflict, writes Gamal Nkrumah

A glimmer of light has appeared in one of the most intractable disputes left by the two-decade war between the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and successive Sudanese government that ended with the 9 January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). After weeks of internecine fighting in the oil rich enclave of Abyei, warring spiralled out of control on Friday when 50,000 civilians were rendered homeless.

A roadmap deal was clinched in June between the Abyei protagonists, and an Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) set up to chart the future of the oil rich enclave. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands was charged with outlining the borders of the disputed region. The June roadmap agreement appears to be tetchy, but if deportment matters most in this particular context, then the SPLA/M came out ahead. They have once again posed as the champions of the underdog.

This June roadmap deal, however, may have been something of a public relations exercise by Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the more influential partner in the Sudanese coalition government that also includes the SPLM. The Sudanese protagonists are determined to resolve the root cause of the conflict that has torn the oil rich enclave of Abyei, currently administered as part of the northern Sudanese province of Kordofan. Of all the northern provinces, perhaps with the possible exception of Darfur, Kordofan is inhabited by motley of non-Arab ethnic groups. Arab tribes represent a majority of the population in many parts of the vast province, but non- Arabs are concentrated in economically viable areas such as the Nuba Mountains in central Kordofan and the Abyei enclave on the northern bank of Bahr Al-Arab.

The disputed enclave of Abyei sandwiched between Bahr Al-Ghazzal region of southern Sudan and Kordofan region in northern Sudan is inhabited by the Arab Misseyria tribe and the non-Arab Ngok Dinka people. The two ethnic groups have long struggled to control the resources of the area, both being nomadic pastoralists. Matters came to a head when Sudan was administered under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium when the administration of nine Ngok chiefdoms were transferred from Bahr Al-Ghazzal to Kordofan. Ever since, the Ngok Dinka maintain that they have suffered humiliating indignities by Misseyria overlords.

The enclave's boundaries were decided by international arbitration. The Dinka have long felt disgruntled by their political peripheralisation because power was traditionally concentrated in the hands of the ethnic Arabs.

The conflict over Abyei has concentrated Sudanese minds on the danger of an explosion that would not only engulf Abyei, but the other outlying regions of Sudan as well. Squabbles between Arab and Dinka pastoralists over access to lush cattle grazing pastures has continued for centuries.

Mediation efforts to reduce the political temperature are prerequisite. International and regional arbiters have a critical role to play. The Ngok Dinka of Abyei by and large support the SPLA/M. The Arab Misseyria pay allegiance to the NCP of Sudanese President Al-Bashir. Many of the Arab tribes of the region are also loyal to the Umma Party, one of Sudan's most influential Islamist opposition political groups.

Both sides are indulging in bellicose rhetoric. The Ngok Dinka threaten to secede and join southern Sudan. The Arab tribes have vowed not to allow Abyei's oil wealth to slip into southern hands. The Messeyria want exclusive rights to Abyei's oil reserves. Conflict was averted this week even though scores of innocent civilians lost their lives. Fighting could break out by sheer accident at any moment.

This is no time for more dithering. If the worst comes to the worst, the conflict might flare up and spread to the entire province of Kordofan pitting Arabs against non- Arabs. Peace and reconciliation is a process that might take years to complete.

Anxious to regain the moral high ground after its ill- judged and bloody military intervention in Darfur, the Sudanese government, or rather the NCP component of government, might not want to ignite the already precarious situation in Abyei. The SPLA/M also realises that the systemic consequences of a collapse of peace talks over Abyei would have far-reaching repercussions. In short, hard choices for the people of Abyei and for the SPLA/M remain.

The fighting that flared up in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei tested the relevance of the CPA. Many Sudanese observers have grave reservations about the efficacy of the CPA itself. The agreement stipulates that after nationwide elections in 2009, a referendum on whether southern Sudan should secede and become an independent political entity would be conducted in 2011.

The fate of Abyei hangs on balance. No census has taken place in recent years to determine the composition of the population according to ethnicity. The Ngok Dinka claim to constitute a majority of the enclave's population. The Arab Messeyria dispute this, but their tribal leaders know all too well that they need to prove that they would be wiser and steadier than their Dinka adversaries under pressure.

This is a political mishmash that bodes ill for Abyei and the rest of Sudan. According to the outline, more oversight will be exercised over the implementation of the CPA in places such as Abyei.

The CPA scheme is indeed imperfect, but it is also the only one on offer. And, it would make the confrontation between pro-NCP militias and the SPLA forces look like a playground brawl.

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