The dispute over the Abyei region along the Sudan-South Sudan border remains unsettled. Many contentious issues divide the two Sudans, but Abyei may be the most fundamental. The vast majority of media outlets focus on Abyei and its oil. That fits a convenient and habitual media narrative, one often used as an information warfare tool to attack U.S. foreign and defense policy: blood for oil or war for oil, or a similar variation on the theme. Abyei does have oil and its oil has value, no question about that. However, the big petrodollars are not in Abyei. A finding made in 2009, by The Hague-based (Netherlands) Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the largest oil fields in the area lie outside Abyei’s territorial boundaries. This means that resolving the Abyei dispute does not directly resolve control of the larger and much more valuable producing oil fields. A look at the map leads to a more subtle assessment of Abyei’s significance: Abyei straddles the north-south border. Now, several spots and strips along the north-south border have yet to be officially demarcated, so in the narrow sense that it is an unresolved border dispute, Abyei is not totally unique. Abyei, however, is not a strip of an area, and it is more like a large lump than a spot. If Sudan were to have total control of the region, the north-south boundary would drop deep into territory the southerners claim as their historical tribal areas. If South Sudan had total control of the Abyei lump then Sudan would make the same claim, in reverse, albeit with less historical authority. Drawing a permanent geo-political border is difficult, but diplomatic real estate-trading supplemented by economic reimbursements have resolved other thorny border issues. Oil royalties can be split, a hectare of dirt here can be exchanged for a hectare of dirt there, so why not settle Abyei?
Because the real fight over Abyei is not for oil. The dirt isn’t quite incidental but it too is secondary. Unfortunately, Abyei provides a definitive example of sub-Saharan Africa’s most vexing heart of darkness issue: ethnicity and ethnic connections. Tribal culture, which in sub-Saharan Africa goes hand in hand with ethnicity, also plays a major role. South Sudan claims Abyei on the behalf of the Dinka Ngok tribe. Well before colonial times the Dinka Ngok lived in permanent villages in and around Abyei. The Dinka Ngok farm and keep cattle herds on their pastures. Sudan makes its claim to Abyei on behalf of the Misseriya tribe. The Misseriya, in contrast to the Dinka Ngok, are nomads or, more accurately, they are semi-nomadic. The Misseriya are pastoralists who move their cattle from north to south, then south to north, depending on the season. If this looks like the classic clash between the sown (Dinka farmers) and the sand (Misseriya pastoralist nomads), well, it is, but it is not necessarily conclusive. Sedentary versus nomad is a large cultural divide, yet tribes have bridged it. However, the cultural differences between the two tribes also include religion differences. The Misseriya are overwhelmingly Muslim. The Dinka Ngok are predominantly Christian and many maintain animist traditional beliefs. Little wonder the Misseriya looked north, to Muslim (northern) Sudan, and the Dinka Ngok looked south, to Black African southern Sudan. During the civil war several Dinka Ngok warriors had leadership positions in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), which was the main southern rebel group. The SPLA is now the name of South Sudan’s army. During the north-south civil war, the political Islamists running Khartoum used the Misseriya militias to harass the southern tribes. The Misseriya were accused of supplying militiamen who participated in slave raids against southern tribes.
Abyei, then, is the Sudanese north-south struggle in microcosm, and neither side wants to sell out its ethnic and religious compatriots. Moreover, the Sudan government believes it needs the Misseriya as a counter-weight in another guerrilla war. The tribe also lives in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, where the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) is waging a insurgent revolt against Sudan. Abyei is, to understate the case, not yet ripe for a diplomatic solution. (Austin Bay)
November 22, 2012: Sudan announced that it had arrested its own former chief of intelligence, Salah Gosh, on charges of attempting a coup d’etat. Several senior military officers were also arrested. A spokesman said that at least 13 government officials and military officers had been arrested, though the figure was not confirmed. Gosh has been considered a political ally of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
November 21, 2012: The Sudanese Army claimed that it had attacked a Darfur rebel group which was located in Al Regaibat, an area near the Sudan-South Sudan border. The Sudanese government later said that South Sudan had provided the rebel group with support. South Sudan claimed that several bombs dropped on the rebel group landed in South Sudan and killed five civilians.
The SPLM-N claimed that its forces shelled the capital of Sudan’s South Kordofan state, Kadguli. The targets were Sudanese government security sites. The artillery attacks (likely mortar attacks) were in retaliation for Sudanese Air Force bombing raids on the villages of Kauda and Labo. The SPLM-N statement was issued by the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). The SRF is the umbrella organization which seeks to represent all of Sudan’s major rebel groups. The Darfur Justice and Equality movement (JEM) is part of the SRF.
November 20, 2012: South Sudan said that it will have to delay restarting oil production despite the September peace agreement. The statement is another indication that the September peace agreement is collapsing. The agreement included a set oil transport fee, paid by South Sudan to Sudan, for shipping oil to export markets through Sudan’s oil transport system. South Sudan also agreed to pay Sudan a compensatory settlement for oil revenue lost after South Sudan became independent. However, Sudan has balked on implementing the agreement, claiming that other security issues (such as alleged South Sudanese support for rebels in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states) must first be resolved.
November 19, 2012: South Sudan said that its forces killed 19 militiamen and lost one soldier in a battle in Linkwangule Payam (Jonglei state). The militia force was an ally of rebel general David Yau Yau. The militiamen allegedly attacked a UN compound in the town run by UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan).
Sudanese media reported that senior SPLM-N leader Yassir Arman, speaking at a conference in Germany held in early November, admitted that South Sudan has provided logistical aid to rebel groups (like the SPLM-N) who are fighting the Sudanese government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. South Sudan has repeatedly denied accusations by Sudan that it supports the SPLM-N or any rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
November 17, 2012: Sudanese media reported that younger members of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are disappointed with president Omar al-Bashir’s leadership. They are particularly angry about the rampant corruption in the NCP. The report comes at a time when the NCP is facing new challenges from its main political opposition, the National Umma Party (NUP).
November 16, 2012: The UN Security Council has extended the mandate for its peacekeeping mission (UNISFA) in the disputed Abyei region. Around 3,900 Ethiopian soldiers are deployed in the peacekeeping force.
November 15, 2012: Sudan’s main opposition leader Al Sadiq al-Mahdi, met with two other Sudanese opposition leaders to discuss cooperation. Al-Mahdi heads the National Umma Party (NUP). He met with senior leaders of the SPLM-N and the Popular Congress Party (PCP). The three opposition groups want a new political system in Sudan.
November 14, 2012: A civilian (Dinka Ngok) staff member working for the UNISFA peacekeeping operation in Abyei was killed as UN peacekeeping forces tried to stop a demonstration by Dinka Ngok protestors. UNISFA claimed the protests were turning violent.
November 13, 2012: SPLM-N forces shelled Kadguli, the capital of Sudan’s South Kordofan state. The rebels said the barrage was aimed at Sudanese military targets and was retaliation for Sudanese air strikes on rebel villages
November 10, 2012: The African Union diplomat tasked with overseeing the Sudan-South Sudan Joint Political and Security Mechanism (JPSM) said that the continuing failure to establish the demilitarized buffer zone is a mistake. The September peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan stipulated that the buffer zone be established and the understanding at the time was it would be established quickly. The parliaments of Sudan and South Sudan confirmed the agreements in mid-October.
November 9, 2012; Sudan continues to accuse Israel of conducting an air strike on Khartoum on October 24. The air strike hit a factory in Khartoum’s Yarmouk area, which is an industrial district. Local witnesses all but confirmed that aircraft conducted the raid, so the air attack story is true. Witnesses also said the raid set off several sympathetic detonations (one indication of stockpiled munitions, solid fuel for rockets, or the like). Subsequent open source analysis, to include analysis of satellite imagery, has produced strong evidence that the target was a weapons plant. Israel has largely avoided making any statement about the attack, though, since the attack Israel has accused Sudan of smuggling weapons to Hamas, in league with Iran. Sudan’s accusations against Israel, however, have failed to attract much sympathy. In fact, they have had the unintended effect of highlighting complaints by several western nations and Israel that Sudan provides Iran with a very cooperative ally.
November 8, 2012: SPLM-N rebels in South Kordofan state claimed that they had shot down a Sudanese Air Force Antonov transport plane that was being used as a bomber. The plane crashed near the Jau area (southern South Kordofan).