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War Again Between North and South Sudan?

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Sunday, as the Khartoum regime was solidifying its military occupation of Abyei and beginning to loot and burn the town, I heard from one of the foremost experts on Sudan in the world, Dr. Douglas Johnson. We agreed that Bashir's government felt certain that it would face no international consequences for its attack on Abyei, which threatens to plunge the North and South back to full-scale war. In the absence of any cost or accountability, to have believed that Khartoum would NOT strike would have been foolhardy.

This is what Dr. Johnson wrote to me:

The Sudan Army's occupation of the Abyei Area has been long anticipated and should come as no surprise. In his opening presentation to the Abyei Boundaries Commission back in 2005, the leader of the Sudan government delegation warned that his government would never concede its control of the territory and it threatened to go to war rather than accept any other solution. Khartoum officials have repeated this claim at different stages during the prolonged international mediation since then. After preventing the democratic referendum last year various Sudanese government officials, including President Bashir, have proclaimed that Abyei was part of the north and would remain part of the north.

The intention of Khartoum has been clear for several years, but the international community's equivocal response has only encouraged them to take action. The UN peace-keeping force in the area for far too long has confined its role to that of monitoring and reporting, rather than actively keeping the two armed groups apart and protecting the area's civilian population.

The US government, having been responsible for drafting the Abyei Protocol in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which promised Abyei's citizens a referendum to choose whether the area would join South Sudan or remain part of the north, then adopted a hands-off approach to the implementation of the agreement. Rather than insisting that Khartoum adhere to the agreements they signed and the referendum legislation their own National Assembly passed, the US and other international actors instead got behind compromise proposals that whittled away the rights of Abyei's citizens to a democratic choice and emboldened Khartoum to undertake the action they have just taken.

The current invasion must be seen in the context of Khartoum's military build-up along the border with Abyei and the adjacent oil regions of South Sudan -- a build-up that has been well documented over the preceding months -- and is a culmination of a series of provocative acts by members of the Sudan Armed Forces and allied militias since January. The danger is that if Khartoum feels that it can get away with yet another flagrant violation of the peace agreement in Abyei, other territorial seizures of strategic oil fields will follow.

John Prendergast is co-founder of the Enough Project and co-author of Unlikely Brothers.