Sudan could be sliding back into a national civil war.
Renewed fighting in the oil-rich Abyei region over the past two weeks has destroyed the town of Abyei and displaced tens of thousands of local Dinka from their homes. The peace deal signed in 2005 - that incredible achievement ending a decades-long north-south civil war - could unravel in Abyei.
The fighting groups, the National Congress Party-controlled Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), are the same parties that signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement three years ago. Starting long before the Darfur crisis ever hit the headlines, this war lasted over 20 years and cost the lives of over two million people. The Agreement created an autonomous southern government that shares a significant portion of the country's wealth. It calls for national elections in 2009, and a southern self-determination referendum in 2011.
The deal has wobbled before, but the bloodshed in Abyei is the heaviest fighting between the two parties since the Agreement was signed. If that deal falls apart, Sudan likely falls apart.
What began over two weeks ago as a small clash between SPLA police and SAF-aligned militia had escalated by 14 May into a full scale military attack by SAF and allied militia on Abyei town. With the army currently in charge of what's left of the wrecked city and digging in, displaced civilians from the town and its surrounding villages are mostly now south of the River Kiir, along with SPLA forces, which are being reinforced.
Abyei remains the most volatile aspect of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It is geographically, ethnically and politically caught between North and South Sudan. The peace agreement included an Abyei Protocol, granting the disputed territory, which has a significant percentage of Sudan's oil reserves, a special administrative status ahead of a 2011 referendum: it can opt between remaining with northern Sudan or joining a potentially independent South Sudan. The parties will need to open a new dialogue on oil issues, including a plan to establish a revenue sharing agreement between North and South beyond 2011, for the contingency that Abyei votes to join the new state in the south. They must also allow the political space for local dialogue between the Ngok Dinka and neighbouring Misseriya Arabs in order to reduce the risk of local conflict between communities and build confidence that all sides will benefit from the peace deal.
However, the situation continues to fester, mainly due to intransigence by the National Congress Party, which has been violating the peace agreement by refusing the "final and binding" ruling of the Abyei Boundary Commission report of July 2005, leaving a dangerous administrative and political vacuum in the region. This vacuum has allowed political tensions to multiply between both national and local actors, leading observers – including Crisis Group – to warn repeatedly about the need for the international community to hold the parties to the terms of the peace agreement and to urgently engage to find a solution in Abyei.
Clearly, if there is no ceasefire and implementation of the agreement, all that is left for Sudan is war. On 18 May, the parties agreed with the UN Mission in Sudan on an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of excess forces from both armies from in and around Abyei. However, the ceasefire failed to hold, and the SAF has failed to re-deploy its 31st Brigade from Abyei as agreed. On 20 May, the SPLA launched a counter-attack on the town, further escalating the situation. The parties have resumed discussions, yet the 31st Brigade continues to sit in burnt and looted remains of Abyei town, thereby undermining the chances of successful dialogue.
Given the fragility of Abyei and in order to avoid a new war in Sudan, the leadership of the Sudan People's Liberation Army based in Juba and the ruling National Congress Party leadership in Khartoum have to pull back their armies and avoid any further escalation. The international community should urgently press Khartoum to withdraw the SAF's 31st Brigade from Abyei, and both parties to abide by the terms of the 18 May ceasefire and subsequent agreements, and offer a beefed up UN force to monitor and patrol the area.
The recent destruction and the preparations for further mass violence should be ringing alarm bells. Now is the time for the international community to preventively engage with the leadership of both parties before the situation gets further out of hand. This requires more than press statements from foreign capitals. Tension in and around Abyei must be immediately de-escalated and such efforts should be led by the UN Mission in Sudan, with the full backing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement's international guarantors. The U.S. bears special responsibility because it brokered the Abyei Protocol in 2004. The Abyei issue should be considered by the UN Security Council as a priority and special effort should be made to visit the area during its upcoming trip to the region.
The Security Council has called for restraint, and UN Mission in Sudan has brought the two warring sides around the table several times. This is not enough. The influential UN member states need to urgently press the leadership on both sides to resolve the Abyei situation. Short term steps should be prioritised that allow the displaced to return home, but ultimately what is needed is an agreement on the borders and the appointment of a local administration as per the peace deal. Sitting by and watching Africa's largest country descend into another devastating civil war cannot be an option.
David Mozersky is Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group.