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Oil-Rich Region Fuels Sudan Crisis

South Sudan leaders remain at odds with Khartoum over the demarcation of the Abyei region.
Sudan’s disputed Abyei region remains the source of ongoing tensions between the semi-autonomous region of South Sudan and the government of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir.

Although the south recently agreed to end a boycott of the coalition government created by the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, saying that most of its issues with al-Bashir had been resolved, the demarcation of the oil-rich Abyei region could sabotage the fragile peace.

Control of the Abyei region, where most of Sudan’s estimated 6 billion barrels of oil reserves lie, will mean huge profits for whoever secures the region. Sudan already produces an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of the largest producers in Africa.

A number of countries currently have oil operations in the region, including China, India, and Malaysia, as well as France and England. A US firm, Marathon Oil, pulled out recently due to American sanctions against Sudan. According to reports, Japan and China are the top consumers of Sudanese oil.

China is a major oil developer in Sudan, having invested about six billion US dollars in Sudan during the past decade, as well as making millions of dollars worth of loans available to Sudan.

The strategic value of the Abyei region’s oil has not gone unnoticed by rebels in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, where more than a dozen groups are battling the janjaweed militia backed by the Sudan government.

In November, members of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement kidnapped five oil workers employed by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a consortium led by a Chinese oil firm.

The rebels initially said the workers would not be freed until China stopped working with the Sudan government, and further accused the Chinese of supplying Sudan with weapons that are used against villagers in Darfur.

China has been criticised for its failure to pressure the al-Bashir government to stop the on-going bloodshed in Darfur, a conflict that has left an estimated 200,000 people dead and more than two million displaced.

The International Criminal Court, ICC, has indicted two Sudanese in connection with Darfur. Ahmed Harun, Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs, and janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb were charged by the court as coordinators of violence against innocent civilians in Darfur.

Sudan has refused to hand over either man or cooperate with the court, and the ICC indictments have had little effect in stopping the violence.

Earlier this month, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the UN Security Council, which had asked the ICC to investigate Darfur, that “massive crimes” continued in Darfur and appeared to be well organised.

Unlawful killings, illegal detentions and sexual violence are among the crimes being routinely committed, he said, while those living in camps for internally displaced people remain destitute. Obstacles to the delivery of aid are part of the pattern of attacks, he said.

Reaching an agreement over the Abyei region’s borders that does not involve war, however, could be difficult as both sides seem reluctant to give up their claims.

Last September, al-Bashir rejected the findings of a commission charged with deciding the Abyei border and which placed the majority of the oil-rich land under the control of the south.

The 15-member commission was led by Douglas H Johnson, a British historian and author who has been researching the history of Sudan for some 40 years.

Al-Bashir said his government supported an Abyei border that existed in 1905 and was demarcated by the Arab leader Sadiq al-Mahadi when he was in power by that time.

The south, expectedly, has rejected the proposed 1905 boundary for Abyei.

“They (NCP) want to implement the Abyei protocol minus the areas that have oil because they want to carve the oil out of South Sudan,” said Riek Machar, vice president of the government of South Sudan, GOSS.

Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the south’s ruling party, the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, told IWPR that the south’s president Salva Kiir and al-Bashir had recently resolved their differences, except for the disputed Abyei region.

“We have achieved a lot…we have resolved all the outstanding issues that caused the tension, with the exception of Abyei,” said Amum.

As a gesture of cooperation, the SPLM has agreed to provide funds for border demarcation and a national census, he said, which will pave the way for the national elections in 2009 and a referendum on the possible independence of the South in 2011.

In addition to Abyei, the sharing of existing oil revenues has been a contentious issue since the peace agreement was signed. The south has claimed that it is owed as much as one billion dollars.

“We have also agreed to institute a fully transparent system in the management of the oil sector,” said Amum, but that has not yet resulted in the regular flow of revenue to the south.

In early November of this year, the SPLM and the Khartoum government agreed to withdraw their forces from the Abyei region and allow it to be controlled by a joint military force, a move that could significantly ease tensions.

Both sides are to complete the withdrawal by January 8, the day before the three-year anniversary of the signing of the 2005 peace agreement, but have been slow to do so.

In order to break the deadlock, however, some Sudanese officials indicated that they might accept international mediation to break the deadlock over the Abyei region.

In November, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reportedly suggested to Kiir during his visit to Washington that China, Saudi Arabia and the US would propose a solution to the Abyei impasse.

“If all attempts to resolve the Abyei crisis politically or through internal mechanisms fail, then we have no problem resorting to international mediation,” Dr Mutrif Siddiq Ali, the undersecretary of the Sudanese foreign ministry told the London-based publication, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Returning to war over Abyei is not an option, he said.

Despite these assurances, however, the boundary dispute rages and the security situation in Abyei remains unstable.

Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR and Hamid Taban is an IWPR contributor.