Only four months after the people of south Sudan overwhelmingly voted to secede from Khartoum's Islamic Republic of Sudan--and six weeks before the independence day of July 9--a resumption of Sudan's civil war is threatened by north Sudan's military occupation of the disputed territory of Abyei and its calls to remove southern soldiers from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Sudan's ethnic and religious divisions coincide in all three borderland territories, with a Muslim nomadic population that looks to the north's capital of Khartoum while Christian and animist farmers are drawn to the south's Juba.
According to the security arrangements in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), both northern and southern soldiers are supposed to patrol the contested border territories. A week ago, southern military forces in the disputed Abyei region attacked UN forces escorting northern troops. Though the Juba government apologized, Khartoum made the attack the pretext for militarily occupying the territory, setting off large refugee flows out of Abyei. According to press reports (NYT), Khartoum is also bringing in nomadic people to replace the estimated forty thousand who have fled, changing the area's ethnic composition and raising the spectre of ethnic cleansing in a territory of strategic and symbolic importance to both north and south Sudan.
The Juba government has shown exceptional restraint so far, in part because it wants to do nothing to delay independence day. But given the ethnic and religious dimensions of Khartoum's aggression, it is uncertain how long south Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit can withstand domestic pressure to respond militarily. Nor will it be easy for north Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to back down. His Islamicist opposition already accuses him of having "lost" south Sudan and of being ineffectual in Darfur.
The Obama administration has condemned Khartoum's occupations as disproportionate and threatening to the CPA, which ended the long civil war resulting in Khartoum's massacre of Christian communities in the south. The White House says Bashir is risking the normalization of relations between Washington and Khartoum, which could include debt relief for Sudan and its removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Both of these are important carrots for Bashir, a pariah in some international circles because the International Criminal Court has indicted him for war crimes during the Darfur conflict. That said, U.S. and other Western influence over Bashir is limited.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, on behalf of the African Union, is seeking to defuse the crisis with a ceasefire and a preliminary security accord (BBC). The accord would have Khartoum and Juba jointly patrol a demilitarized zone extending ten kilometers on either side of the over two thousand kilometer north-south border. The Obama administration supports the Mbeki proposals, and the AU will hold more meetings this week in Ethiopia. Khartoum is showing some interest by attending the meetings. But it has also signaled that it will attack southern forces in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, disputed territories with proven oil reserves, if they do not vacate the regions by June 1.
The current Abyei crisis should have been forestalled by the much-heralded CPA, which envisioned a six-year period in which the northern and southern governments would seek to resolve outstanding issues, with the South then voting on whether to become independent or remain a part of a federal Republic of Sudan. The most difficult of those issues were the status of Abyei, delineation of the frontier between the two states (whether independent or as part of a federation), a formula for sharing oil revenue, and the resolution of the nationality question: the legal status of southerners living in the north and vice versa.
Largely because of Khartoum's intransigence, little or no progress was made over the past six years, setting the stage for the current collision over Abyei and the other disputed territories. But, Juba, too, was unwilling to press ahead. It wanted to do nothing that would jeopardize the 2011 referendum, and, after a generation of civil war, there were few signs that a federal future ever had much political support in the south. Hence, it was no surprise that when the referendum was held, the south voted overwhelmingly to secede.
In the short term, Mbeki may have provided a way out of this particular crisis. But, even under the most optimistic scenario, relations between Khartoum and Juba are likely to remain difficult, especially as most of the issues that divide them remain unresolved. Here, there may be a positive role for China. Beijing has long been heavily invested in Khartoum, but it also wants influence in Juba, which controls significant oil production and probably even greater reserves. A renewal of warfare between north and south, or even a cold war between Khartoum and Juba, would be contrary to Chinese interests. The Obama administration should do what it can to encourage the Chinese to play a responsible role commensurate with the importance of their presence, thereby facilitating the normalization of relations between the two Sudans.