Southern Sudan's Precarious Peace

Southern Sudan's Precarious Peace

Monday, 27 July, 2009

Both north and south Sudan have said that they will adhere to a ruling from the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, PCA, over the demarcation of the disputed borders of oil-rich Abyei, a region belonging to the south.

On the surface, north Sudan seems to have done pretty well out of the ruling, gaining control over two key oil fields that were previously owned by the south.

But it would be wrong to talk of winners and losers now. The important thing is to see that the ruling is properly implemented, and that things can start to move forwards.

If this doesn't happen, the consequences could be terrible – with many more deaths, and even a slow slide back into all-out civil war. The PCA's ruling could be the final opportunity for a lasting peace to take hold.

Almost exactly a year ago today, I stood in the centre of the dusty market town of Abyei, the capital of the region, surveying a desolate wasteland of ransacked shops and burnt-down traditional dwellings known as tukuls.

There was no tumbleweed blowing across the scorched terrain, but it felt as though there ought to be. The place was a ghost town.

Two months earlier, in May 2008, Khartoum-backed forces had clashed with troops from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, the former rebels of the south, with devastating consequences.

Dozens of people were killed and an estimated 50,000, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, were forced to flee their homes.

What triggered the bloody fighting was, reportedly, a fairly minor skirmish at an SPLA-manned checkpoint in the town.

But hostilities run much deeper than that.

The Ngok Dinka and Messeria, both tribes that are native to the region, have a history of animosity towards one another.

The Ngok Dinka is a southern tribe, which aligned itself with the SPLA during the country's civil war.

The Messeria are a nomadic Arab people from the north, who were armed and backed by Khartoum during hostilities.

In recent years, the two tribes have come into increasingly close contact with one another, as encroaching desertification has meant that the Messeria have had to wander further afield to graze their cattle.

Both the south and the north have been accused of manipulating these tribal rivalries for their own ends.

As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, which officially ended Sudan's long-running civil war, the Abyei Border Commission, ABC, was charged with demarcating the borders.

But, when it redrew them along 1905 lines, which would have left some key oilfields within the region and therefore in the south, Khartoum refused to accept the recommendations.

In its July 22 ruling, the PCA indicated that some of the evidence supporting some of these recommendations was questionable, and so it presented its own view of where the borders should lie.

The court recommended reducing the east and west boundaries of the region and, to the delight of Khartoum, excluding two key oil fields – Heglig and Bamboo – which will now belong to the north.

Agreeing on border demarcation is more than just an academic argument. As a source from the United States embassy in Khartoum told me, “Resolving the Abyei issue is crucial to achieving sustainable peace in the country.”

At the moment, under the terms of the CPA, revenue from oil wells in the south is split 50-50 with the north.

However, in 2011, south Sudan is due to hold a referendum on independence and, if it votes to secede, the north will lose all entitlement to revenue from its oil wells.

This is why the government is jumping up and down with joy at the thought that Heglig – the biggest oil field in Sudan, accounting for more than a third of the country's production – now lies within its territory.

The south may be privately ruing the potential loss of this oil income, but nonetheless they are putting a brave face on things, with Riek Machar, vice-president of South Sudan, going on record as saying the judgement is “balanced”.

But, tucked away within the 286-page ruling, there is a reason why the south may be able to stomach the loss of Heglig.

Since the new boundaries adhere much more closely to tribal lines – with the Ngok Dinka included as part of Abyei and the Messeria as part of the north – there is a good chance that Abyei will opt to stay with the south, when it gets to hold its own referendum on the issue in 2011.

Maggie Fick, a policy assistant at Enough, which fights against genocide, argues that now is not the time to be analysing who has gained from the ruling and who has lost.

“There is now a real opportunity for peace and this must not be missed,” she said. “Abyei is ground zero for implementation of the CPA.”

But are both sides likely to listen to such sentiments – or will they continue to manipulate things in their own interests, as they have been doing in the past?

Both sides have repeatedly stressed that they will adhere to the court's ruling, and this may be a positive sign of things to come. Moreover, as Fick points out, all the international attention that Abyei is now receiving is likely to dissuade either side from reneging on its promise.

The danger would be if the international community was to blink.

Blake Evans-Pritchard is IWPR’s Africa Editor.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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