Why Kenya, Uganda should shiver over Sudan’s Abyei crisis

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Burning homes in the centre of Abyei, which was overrun by President Bashir’s troops last week. Pictures: AFP

Burning homes in the centre of Abyei, which was overrun by President Bashir’s troops last week. Pictures: AFP 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo, The East African

Posted  Sunday, May 29   2011 at  14:41

When North Sudan forces seized and ransacked the disputed border town of Abyei a week ago, it seemed like the country would return to the bloody 25-year war that ended in 2005 with the Nairobi Peace Agreement.

In January, South Sudan voted in a referendum by nearly 99 per cent to secede from the north, but the oil-rich Abyei region didn’t take part because Khartoum and Juba could not agree on the borders and who was eligible to vote.

In any event, though Sudan President Omar al-Bashir supported the referendum vote, he made it clear that his government would not recognise the new South Sudan when it formally comes into being on July 9, if Abyei was part of it. Abyei proved so intractable that it was left unresolved in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the north- south civil war.

Abyei contains rich pastureland, water and an oil field known as Diffra. Tensions are both over actual and speculative oil deposits. The region has emotional, symbolic and strategic significance. A number of leading figures from the south’s dominant party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), come from the area.

North Sudan, unlike the south, is largely desert and depends for nearly 90 per cent of its revenues on oil from the fields in the south. Losing Abyei could, potentially, lead to the north’s economic collapse.

Yet, in several ways, Bashir’s reaction  in Abyei last week could set off a chain reaction that could be the north’s death warrant.

According to analysts, Bashir is spoiling for a war to shore up his position, and he could overplay his hand in the process.

Locally, cracks are emerging in the inner circle that has kept Bashir in power. As he gets increasingly isolated, Bashir does not only face the risk of a coup, but the imagery of Southern Sudan gaining independence is expected to strengthen the voice and resolve of Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur to break away from the North.

Add to that the possibility that in taking over Abyei in contravention of the CPA and recent security agreements struck with the SPLM, Bashir’s calculation in Khartoum was that because an attack would be so provocative, the South would retaliate immediately, and there would be war.

With war, the July  9 formal independence of South Sudan wouldn’t happen, effectively annulling the results of the February 17 referendum and enabling Khartoum to exploit the oil in the south legally.

However, Bashir seems to have underestimated South Sudan President Salva Kiir (who is also vice president of Sudan). Kiir may not have his predecessor John Garang’s charisma and forceful character, but in crises he is a calmer head and more strategic in his thinking.

Instead, on Thursday, he surprised quite a few people when he came out and  “completely” ruled out a return to war, instead urging the north to withdraw its forces, whom he called “invaders”, from the oil-producing region.

Victory for the South?

While the North looked hawkish, the Southern leader appeared more reasonable. It was not the only victory for the South. The UN has demanded an immediate withdrawal of Sudan’s forces from Abyei, and  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed the establishment of a 7,000-member peacekeeping force in Southern Sudan after the region becomes independent.

The UN currently has a 10,000  force in the region to monitor the peace agreement. At the press conference, where Kiir demanded Khartoum’s exit from Abyei, he also repeated the demand for an “international force” to keep peace in the area.

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