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Abyei: A Harbinger for Sudan

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This post was co-authored by Enough Project researcher Maggie Fick and originally appeared on Reuters AlertNet

Reactions to yesterday's ruling on the status of Sudan's disputed Abyei region will serve as a barometer of each side's willingness to take concrete steps toward peace and tell us a lot about the future of that beleaguered country. The initial signs are positive, but much remains to be done.

An oil-rich territory astride Sudan's contested North-South border, Abyei was a major flashpoint in the bloody civil war between the government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the South and one of the thorniest issues at the negotiations that led to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Despite renewed commitments on both sides to honor their obligations under the CPA, yesterday's ruling in The Hague occurs in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and increased militarization.

As with other conflicts inside Sudan, the ongoing tug of war over Abyei has both local and national dimensions. Abyei is the ancestral land of the Ngok Dinka and also hosts the grazing and seasonal migrations of the Misseriya and other nomadic groups whose livelihoods depend on the area's rich resources. The Misseriya and Ngok developed hardened "Northern" and "Southern" identities respectively during Sudan's North-South civil wars, and the discovery of vast oil reserves in Abyei in the late 1970s further raised the stakes over who Abyei's residents are, where its borders lie, and, ultimately, whether it is a part of northern or southern Sudan.

The CPA established a commission to determine Abyei's boundaries once and for all. However, when the Abyei Boundary Commission issued its ruling in July 2005, Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) rejected the decision outright and charged the commission with exceeding its mandate. And although the ruling was "final and binding," the international community did not muster the resolve to press Khartoum to accept it and seemed to tolerate a dangerous stalemate.

Few observers were surprised when the stalemate erupted in violence in May 2008. After the Sudanese army destroyed the town of Abyei and displaced some 60,000 people (nearly the entire population of Abyei), international diplomats rushed in to broker another solution. The result is the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal, which reached a decision yesterday.

Thankfully, there is some good news. Both sides have issued statements agreeing to implement yesterday's ruling, and the international community -- represented by U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration, UN Special Representative Ashraf Qazi, among others -- have highlighted their commitment to Abyei by being there yesterday for the announcement. These are welcome developments, but diplomacy must not be ephemeral. Since the CPA was signed, diplomats in Sudan have bounded from one crisis to the next. Abyei must be the start of a far more sustained effort by countries committed to peace in Sudan to hold the parties to all of their commitments.

Indeed, recent efforts to reinvigorate CPA implementation will be wasted if the international community does not work assiduously to reach a durable political settlement on Abyei and other outstanding issues. In the end, determining the fate of Sudan's sizable oil reserves may prove the most difficult task. The financial crisis sent Sudan's oil revenues plummeting in 2008, and the enduring question of how oil will be shared between the North and South following the South's self-determination referendum in 2011 (and a concurrent referendum within Abyei on whether to join southern Sudan) has only become more contentious. A plan for revenue-sharing after the referenda (regardless of their outcomes) has not yet been established. Without this agreement and subsequent negotiations in good faith between the Sudanese parties, the underlying political impasse in Abyei and other embattled and oil-laden areas will remain.

If Abyei relapses into violence and the boundary dispute remains unsettled, the future for Sudan looks extraordinarily bleak. Recent military confrontations between the Sudanese army and the southern army, or SPLA -- including the heavy fighting in Malakal earlier this year -- demonstrate clearly that both sides are on a hair trigger. Continued stalemate in Abyei is a recipe for a return to full-scale civil war, the humanitarian consequences of which are awful to contemplate. The people of Sudan have suffered far too much for far too long. Now is the time for the parties to the CPA and the agreement's guarantors to step up and say enough is enough.