Sudan's north and south have reached a deal to avoid returning to war over the disputed oil-producing city of Abyei, which is due to come under temporary joint administration next month. But the agreement comes too late for tens of thousands who fled the city as northern troops invaded in May.
“The south is very unhappy that the north has occupied the area,” said Stephen Hilbert, the U.S. Catholic bishops' foreign policy advisor for Africa. “Now that they occupy it, they are basically allowing people to come in and loot the place.”
“It's very unfortunate, and it's very destructive to the peace deal,” Hilbert told CNA on June 2.
South Sudan's government says the invasion killed 116 civilians and displaced 80,000 others. Nevertheless, the country's two main regions – which will split into separate countries on July 9 – agreed on May 30 to demilitarize their border, and resolve the status of Abyei in negotiations facilitated by the African Union.
The tentative agreement comes as a relief to international observers, who feared that the northern seizure of Abyei would start a third civil war between the separating sides. The current humanitarian crisis, however, remains a serious one.
The U.N. World Food Program said on June 1 that it had already provided food aid to 45,000 people displaced by the fighting in Abyei. Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told Vatican Radio that “many people have gone into hiding in the bush.”
Edwards said U.N. workers were “seeing a number of places in which families have been split during the fighting.” He reported that “looting and sporadic shooting” were continuing as of May 31.
Catholic Relief Services told CNA that it could not currently provide details regarding its role in the aftermath of the violence, because of security concerns. But the organization said that it would be “working with … local leaders to meet the needs of the displaced.”
The final status of Abyei remains a critical and unresolved issue between Sudan's two main regions, which spent most of their post-colonial history locked in two bloody civil wars. The country's largely Muslim north and its primarily Christian and Animist south never managed to live together as a single state, although they did negotiate an end to their second civil war in 2005.
The agreement reached during that year, between the northern government in Khartoum and the southern administration in Juba, spelled out a plan for Abyei to vote on its future as a part of either the north or south. But several of the deadlines for that referendum have already passed, over disagreements as to who would be eligible to vote. No vote is scheduled at present.
A third civil war between Sudan's north and south is considered a worst-case scenario for both groups, and the region as a whole. Last month, it seemed like a distinct possibility.
Around May 19, Stephen Hilbert explained, “there was a skirmish” in Abyei. “Southern troops fired upon a small column of northern troops that were being escorted by the U.N. out of the area.”
The attack still defies explanation. “Was it a rogue unit? Was it people that were just out of control, or an error? We may never know.”
Sudan's northern government, based in Khartoum, responded by invading and occupying the city on May 21. By many people's account, Hilbert said, the north “used it as an excuse” to take back Abyei – in a hugely disproportionate attack involving artillery, tanks, and infantry.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir said on May 24 that Abyei was “a northern land” from which his troops would “not withdraw.” According to the Sudan Tribune, the northern Sudanese leader said his forces were “prepared for war.”
But the leader of Southern Sudan's autonomous government in Juba, President Salva Kiir, said on May 26 that he would not return to war over Abyei.
According to Hilbert, foreign diplomatic pressure helped to convince President Al-Bashir to back down.
Sudan's northern government wants relief from its international debts – which are in the tens of billions of dollars – and full diplomatic recognition from the U.S., which currently labels the Khartoum government as a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. diplomats reportedly used both points as leverage to keep the north from provoking a full-scale war in May.
Some experts, including Georgetown Professor Andrew Natsios, believe President Al-Bashir launched the invasion as a domestic show of force, to intimidate dissidents within his own territory who may be considering an Egyptian-style revolution.
In a May 27 essay, Natsios, a former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, explained that Al-Bashir purged his political opponents from army leadership positions before undertaking the invasion.
“Bashir's worst fear would be for these pockets of opposition to unite in a grand alliance with civil-society groups in the capital against his rule, a fear that he appears to be trying to stave off by drumming up a war in Abyei,” Natsios observed.
Whatever the motive for the invasion may have been, the diplomatic priority now is to ensure that the two sides' fragile peace can bear the weight of South Sudan's historic transition to independence.
Hilbert is optimistic. He expects Al-Bashir to restrain himself out of economic self-interest, if nothing else, now that “the die of southern independence has been cast.”
“Both sides need the oil revenue,” Hilbert said. “The oil is in the south, but the refinery and the pipelines and the export facilities are in the north. Both sides need to make sure that is not threatened.”
Abyei's final status will remained undetermined when South Sudan becomes independent in five weeks. By that time, Hilbert hopes the international community will have managed to alleviate the immediate suffering of thousands of people who were forced to flee the city.
“The effort has to be to mitigate the suffering as much as possible for these tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes, and can't go back,” he said, “while at the same time – probably in large part behind closed doors – sitting down with people in the north and saying, 'Look, you've got to pull these troops out.'”