By Douglas H. Johnson, the author of The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 31/05/11):
Sudan, for now the vastest country in Africa, is once again on the verge of civil war. A 2005 peace agreement, brokered with American assistance, was supposed to resolve the issues that led to 22 years of fighting between the Arab-dominated North and secessionists in the South. But it has not.
In a January referendum, the South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted for independence. But the North’s occupation of the contested border region of Abyei this month could reignite the conflict between North and South — unless foreign powers, especially China, use their leverage to stop it.
The international community — particularly the United Nations and the United States — have been spectacularly ineffective in getting the Sudanese government to honor its own agreements. United Nations peacekeeping forces in Abyei have failed to protect civilians from attacks and keep the two sides apart. After 2005, the Bush administration concentrated mostly on the western region of Darfur and ignored the South. The Obama administration refocused its attention on the North-South conflict, but put all its energy into the independence referendum, at the expense of Abyei.
Abyei’s fertile grazing lands are used by both the Ngok Dinka people, the area’s permanent residents, and Misseriya Arabs, seasonal migrants from the North. A referendum held simultaneously with South Sudan’s independence vote was supposed to resolve the status of Abyei. But Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has obstructed a resolution: first by refusing to accept the borders recommended by the Abyei Boundaries Commission, on which I served; then by blocking the enforcement of a ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague; and finally by preventing the Abyei referendum.
Mr. Bashir believes that transferring Abyei to the South would set a dangerous precedent for other disaffected areas, including Darfur, that are already seeking greater autonomy from Khartoum. American officials have unwittingly encouraged the Bashir regime to take a hard line by supporting successive compromise proposals rather than insisting that Khartoum adhere to the peace agreement and abide by the court ruling. Confident that it would face no concerted opposition, the North has now made the final, violent, push.
The Abyei occupation comes in the wake of Khartoum’s military build-up elsewhere along the border, as well as its recent escalation of fighting in Darfur. There is a real risk that the North will now simply occupy all contested border areas — and possibly the oil fields inside South Sudan — and refuse to leave unless pushed out. In the short term, this will unite public opinion in the North behind Mr. Bashir at a time when many there are assailing him for losing the South. But in the long term it will likely spread instability and violence to other parts of Sudan.
To prevent the Abyei crisis from igniting other conflicts, the international community must stop pretending that both sides are equally at fault. Carrots haven’t worked. Washington will need to wield sticks, such as canceling debt relief talks or suspending normalization of diplomatic relations, if Sudan does not withdraw its forces quickly. But ultimately, Washington has limited leverage over the Sudanese government, having reduced both its diplomatic and economic ties during the civil war.
The key player will be China. Beijing has considerable economic and political clout in Khartoum; at the same time, it is trying to build good relations with the Southern leadership in Juba. The occupation of Abyei is threatening Chinese oil operations along the border and inside South Sudan. The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently urged the two sides “to adhere to peace and restrain themselves” by fulfilling the provisions of the peace agreement.
This may sound like anodyne diplomatic jargon, but it is a sharp break from China’s usual silence about the domestic behavior of the Sudanese regime, and a departure from the support it gave Sudan in 2008 after the International Criminal Court indicted Mr. Bashir on genocide charges. This presents a rare opportunity for the United States and China to work together in pushing for a resolution in Abyei before the South formally declares independence on July 9.
First, Washington and Beijing must insist that Khartoum withdraw its forces and restore Abyei’s deposed civil administration. Second, they must stress that there will be no more compromises over agreements already reached. All Sudanese armed groups should leave Abyei and the surrounding territory, and be replaced by international troops with a more robust commitment to protect civilians.
A referendum is still the best way to confirm the will of Abyei’s permanent residents, but a fair vote is impossible today, given Mr. Bashir’s efforts to tip the region’s demographic balance by driving out Ngok Dinka and replacing them with Northerners. The international community could and should oversee a future vote, but only after ensuring the return of Abyei’s original inhabitants and guaranteeing the free and fair exercise of their democratic rights.
Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona