Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Graham Usher

Sudan's border wars

Ending one conflict in Sudan has only highlighted the intractability of another, writes Graham Usher at the United Nations

On 20 June ex-South African president -- and African Union peacemaker -- Thabo Mbeki told the UN Security Council that an agreement had been reached between the north and south Sudanese governments over their contested Abyei border region, ending a month of clashes between the north and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLM).

Khartoum said it would withdraw its forces and accept their replacement by Ethiopian peace-keepers "as soon as authorised by the United Nations", said Mbeki. The Sudanese army had overrun the region last month, forcing out 110,000 indigenous Dinka farmers.

Council members welcomed the news. They feared Abyei could reignite a civil war that, prior to a 2005 peace deal between Khartoum and the SPLM, had lasted two decades and left two million Sudanese dead.

Still, the council's reception was cool. Member states knew the flames of war may have been doused in Abyei only to migrate to another, even more incendiary conflict along Sudan's border in South Kordofan.

Since 5 June hundreds have been killed there and tens of thousands displaced in fighting between the Sudanese army and SPLA. "The reports my government has been receiving of the ongoing fighting are horrifying -- both because of the scope of the human rights abuses and because of the ethnic dimensions of the conflict," said US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice.

The Sudanese army "has threatened to shoot down UNMIS (the UN's peace-keeping mission in Sudan)ê and refused landing rights to UNMIS flights," she added.

Coupled with army and SPLA roadblocks this amounted to a blockade on UN humanitarian access to South Kordofan. The UN estimate is that over 60,000 have been displaced by the fighting, with perhaps half of these children.

Abyei and South Kordofan are the worst of several wars assailing Sudan. They pose a threat not only to the 2005 peace deal but also to what many see as its sole flower: the secession of South Sudan as an independent state next month.

Khartoum's pre-emptive wars in Abyei and south Kordofan were seen by most analysts as diplomacy by lethal means. The aim was either to improve north Sudan's hand over a host of unresolved issues still to be negotiated with the south before independence. Or to purge any native people left in the north but deemed sympathetic to the southern government or active in the SPLA.

Abyei may be an example of the first policy. South Kordofan seems to be an instance of the second.

The Sudanese army invaded Abyei after SPLA ambushes on its troops. The retaliation was disproportionate and preplanned, executed by tanks, artillery and thousands of troops. The Dinka fled in terror and the army and Arab militia burned bridges and razed homes to prevent their return. UN peace-keepers -- who did little to protect the Dinka -- said Abyei may have been "ethnically cleansed".

Under Mbeki's new agreement the Dinka can return. But Khartoum has clearly been rewarded for its aggression. The head of Abyei's new temporary administration will be chosen by the Sudanese government and then split 50-50 between Khartoum and the SPLA. With impasse built in, it's difficult to see how agreement will be reached on whether Abyei belongs to the north or south.

Mbeki also said headway had been made on unresolved issues between the two sides over debt sharing, currency, trade and the division of oil revenues: until recently the SPLM had been reluctant to negotiate on any of them. "The parties have arrived at major solutions and soon these agreements will become final. This is good news," said Khartoum's UN Ambassador Daffa Alla Ali Osman.

He also said the Sudanese army's offensive in South Kordofan was caused by the SPLA's "horrendous violations" of the 2005 peace agreement. In fact the violence erupted after South Kordofan's new governor, Ahmed Haroun, issued an ultimatum to the SPLA that it either disarm by 5 June or "return to the south".

Under the 2005 deal any disarmament is supposed to be part of a "popular consultation" between Khartoum and the people of South Kordofan. As for "return", SPLA fighters in South Kordofan are ethnic Nuban, native to the territory. They have already returned.

Haroun was a senior official in Darfur, where he was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. There are shades of Darfur in South Kordofan. UN and human rights monitors describe Nubans being rounded up indiscriminately by Sudanese soldiers, their villages strafed and those suspected of ties with the SPLA executed. "They are killing the black people," an aid worker told the UN.

There are 45,000 SPLA fighters from South Kordofan in South Sudan demanding to return. Khartoum has said it will not tolerate the existence of "two armies" on its territory once the south becomes a separate state on 9 July. Mbeki began negotiations between the SPLM and the Sudan government on 21 June to try to square these noose-like circles.

Few on the Security Council think the negotiations will go anywhere. That's one of the reasons they would like a UN presence to stay on in places like South Kordofan after 9 July. When governments fail to give protection to their own civilians, "we have an obligation to provide it," said Rice.

Khartoum has refused. It says all UN forces must leave its soil after 9 July. The UN will almost certainly comply. The member states' priority is to prevent war breaking out between Sudan's two new states, not to end the wars raging within them.

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