Violence erupted again this week along the volatile faultline that is the town of Abyei.
Abeyi is an oil-rich area that lies on the border between North Sudan and South Sudan, which both claim as their territory. It is largely populated by Southern Sudanese Ngok Dinka and their nomadic neighbors, the Northern Sudanese Misseriya. Abyei has historically been an important bridge between the North and the South, and its importance grew with the discovery of oil within its boundaries. After the 40-year Sudan Civil War, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, bringing it to the more than 4 deacdes- long civil war to a close. One of the most challenging issues to negotiate was the question of Abyei. So a separate agreement was created called the Abeyi Protocol, which called for both sides to withdraw their troops to pre-Civil War levels and for a Border Commission to be sent to investigate the boundaries. The Border Commission ruled Abyei was part of the South, but the Government of Sudan in Kharotum disregarded the ruling.
Since the Civil War, Abyei has been the site of many clashes that appear to have their origins in clashes between the Dinka and the Misseriya, and almost always inevitably involve the Governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan respectively to send in their armies. in an area so closely contested, the smallest of frictions is likely to escalate to national proportions: The last major such clash was in May, and though it began as an argument at a checkpoint, it escalated so quickly that it ended up displaced 50,000 and it was feared that the clash would reignite the Civil War.
However, the faultline once again proved to be active, and according to the Associated Press,
“Mukhtar Babu Nimr, a tribal chief, said the flare-up in Abyei started with a scuffle between policemen and an Arab butcher who declined to move to a new town market. They said he argued with the newly deployed police and then stabbed one of them.
Nimr said wider violence ensued and police fired in the air to disperse a crowd. Soldiers also newly in the region fired back, believing they were under attack, he said.
But an Abyei resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the security forces clashed over how to resolve the butcher issue. The resident said two policemen were killed in the violence.”
The fact that the conflict quickly had escalated to pit the police against the army and ultimately kill 2 police offers and 9 civilians and displace almost 10,000 civilians shows he height of the instability in the region.
However, often overlooked in this story is a strange foreshadowing: the Government of Sudan had actually been building its troop presence in the area since December 8, allegedly responding to the threat that the militarily-powerful Darfur rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement intended on invading the area. The Government of Southern Sudan expressed its outrage and discomfort with this arrangement, and massive international appeals went out to try and avert another strong armed confrontation. None besides the flare-up mentioned above have happened, but this marks a notch of the consistent trend of the arms and military race that the North and South are engaged in before the 2011 referendum on the South’s independence.
The international community would be well-advised to keep an eye on this highly volatile region as a sort of litmus test for the country’s political and military dynamics as a whole.