Nairobi — 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.
Clearly, then, Kiir sees that above all, it is critical that South Sudan first become an internationally recognised state. As an independent state, it can sign a defence pact with another, or call on allies to help it in the fight for Abyei.
Diplomatically, the South already has a leg up with the UN resolution on Abyei. If the violence escalates and leads to more deaths, an independent South Sudan and its allies can push for the implementation of the UN resolution on Abyei. This could easily see Bashir facing the same wrath as his northern neighbour, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi of Libya, over whose country the UN Security Council imposed a "No Fly Zone".
Though it seemed like Gaddafi had forced a stalemate and would hold out for long, the past two weeks have seen the momentum beginning to shift from under his feet, and as the bombings intensify, regime elements are now openly talking about how Gaddafi's departure would help end the crisis.
Back to Sudan. In the past, Bashir has held forth as a no-nonsense regional warlord. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that his power within Sudan's security apparatus and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is waning.
The Crisis Group in May reported that the party establishment is facing multiple security, political, social and economic challenges, and the NCP is deeply divided over the way forward.
The party's security hardliners remain committed to a military solution to chronic instability. Others call for internal party reform to address NCP's problems but are giving little thought to resolving those of the country. Power is now increasingly concentrated in a small clique around Bashir. However, this centralisation is not reflected in the armed forces.
Concerned about a possible coup, Bashir and his associates are reported to have fragmented the security services and come to rely increasingly on personal loyalty and tribal allegiances to remain in power.
Analysts argue that with the way NCP has been allowed to flounder, the recent dismissal of the formerly powerful Salah Gosh reflects divisions that have the potential to lead to the party's collapse or coup.
"The NCP recognised that peace with the South could threaten its survival, and it negotiated the CPA with a view to protecting its power rather than addressing the root causes of the perennial crises," said the Crisis Group, "The resultant preoccupation with self-interest and failure to make unity attractive led Southerners to overwhelmingly choose secession in the January 2011 self-determination referendum."
How the cookie crumbles
Bashir's gamble becomes more deadly if one considers that it could lead to a split of the country into five possible independent states along the Savanna Belt that may include: Southern Sudan, Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and the North.
These states share a history of war, neglect by Khartoum and intertwined livelihoods. They are all highly militarised.
The most likely first next breakaway region could be Darfur, where over the years the Khartoum government has slaughtered thousands of people and displaced over a million. Bashir landed himself an indictment by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
South Sudan's secession has emboldened the Darfur rebels, who have since united in ways that they had failed to do in the past.
In the face of these secessionist pressures, Bashir and the NCP have invested heavily in causing trouble in these provinces by arming local tribes such as Missiriya in Abyei and Janjaweed in Darfur. There has been an increase in local insurrections in the south and an increased arming of local communities.
As the International Crisis Group argued recently in a report, "A 'new south' is emerging in the hitherto transnational areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile that -- along with Darfur, the East and other marginal areas -- continues to chafe under the domination of the NCP. Unless their grievances are addressed by a more inclusive government, Sudan risks more violence and disintegration."
That would be the worst nightmare of many African leaders, who have warned that South Sudan secession would set off a tsunami of separatist movements all over the continent.
Even Eritrea's president Isaias Afewerki, who fought a 25-year war against Ethiopia for the independence of his country, was frightened by the likely knock-on effect of South Sudan's independence.
In East Africa, Uganda gave the first indication of how the Abyei crisis is viewed. In a statement issued by the military spokesman in Kampala, Uganda, a staunch military ally of the SPLA/M during its war, said "Certainly no African patriot and Pan Africanist can allow a reversal of the gains made by the people of South Sudan, so we see regional efforts to make Khartoum respect the Machakos agreement."
And while saying diplomacy was the only way forward, Kampala hinted that it would back the South's claim on Abyei, when the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) said" "Our President [Yoweri Museveni] has promised to stand with our brothers and sisters of GOSS in their our of need, so for us our comradeship with the SPLA is stronger than ever before."
Ominously, the statement added: "Morally, the Sudan government is under obligation to respect the wishes of the people of Abyei, if not international law will be invoked"
Museveni attitude to Sudan, and particularly toward the North, has been shaped to a large degree by Khartoum's past -- and, some insist, continuing -- support for the brutal Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony.
Indeed the UPDF statement went to say: "Strategicaly, war to the north provides a fertile ground for negative forces against our people. It could be possible that Kony has been playing safe with a hope of Khartoum parenting him again. After all the office that used to coordinate with the LRA has never been closed. Suffice to say, the UPDF has always remained ready to defend our people from whatever challenge".
The Uganda statement came as the Enough Project, which works to "end genocide and crimes against humanity" and has in recent years been very vocal about abuses the Khartoum regime, called on U.S President Barack Obama administration to do more to end the humanitarian crisis created by the LRA in central Africa.
A possible balkanization of Sudan into five independent states would reverberate across Africa. At a regional level, the Abyei crisis could easily snowball and reawaken the proxy wars that have in the past enjoined Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad and Kenya into its domestic politics.