By Peter Eichstaedt and Hamid Taban
December 21, 2007 (THE HAGUE/JUBA) — Sudan’s disputed Abyei region remains the source of ongoing tensions between the semi-autonomous region of South Sudan and the government of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir.
Although the south recently agreed to end a boycott of the coalition government created by the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, saying that most of its issues with al-Bashir had been resolved, the demarcation of the oil-rich Abyei region could sabotage the fragile peace.
Control of the Abyei region, where most of Sudan’s estimated 6 billion barrels of oil reserves lie, will mean huge profits for whoever secures the region. Sudan already produces an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of the largest producers in Africa.
A number of countries currently have oil operations in the region, including China, India, and Malaysia, as well as France and England. A US firm, Marathon Oil, pulled out recently due to American sanctions against Sudan. According to reports, Japan and China are the top consumers of Sudanese oil.
China is a major oil developer in Sudan, having invested about six billion US dollars in Sudan during the past decade, as well as making millions of dollars worth of loans available to Sudan.
The strategic value of the Abyei region’s oil has not gone unnoticed by rebels in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, where more than a dozen groups are battling the janjaweed militia backed by the Sudan government.
Reaching an agreement over the Abyei region’s borders that does not involve war, however, could be difficult as both sides seem reluctant to give up their claims.
Last September, al-Bashir rejected the findings of a commission charged with deciding the Abyei border and which placed the majority of the oil-rich land under the control of the south.
The 15-member commission was led by Ambassador Donald Petterson, a career Foreign Service officer of the US from 1960 to 1995 and served as US Ambassador to Somalia (1978-1982), Tanzania (1986-1989) and Sudan (1992-1995). He has been a consultant on Sudan affairs since 1999 and is the author of two books, one on Sudan and one on Zanzibar.
Al-Bashir said his government supported an Abyei border that existed in 1905 and was demarcated by the Arab leader Sadiq al-Mahadi when he was in power by that time.
The south, expectedly, has rejected the proposed 1905 boundary for Abyei.
“They (NCP) want to implement the Abyei protocol minus the areas that have oil because they want to carve the oil out of South Sudan,” said Riek Machar, vice president of the government of South Sudan, GOSS.
Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the south’s ruling party, the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, told IWPR that the south’s president Salva Kiir and al-Bashir had recently resolved their differences, except for the disputed Abyei region.
“We have achieved a lot…we have resolved all the outstanding issues that caused the tension, with the exception of Abyei,” said Amum.
As a gesture of cooperation, the SPLM has agreed to provide funds for border demarcation and a national census, he said, which will pave the way for the national elections in 2009 and a referendum on the possible independence of the South in 2011.
In addition to Abyei, the sharing of existing oil revenues has been a contentious issue since the peace agreement was signed. The south has claimed that it is owed as much as one billion dollars.
“We have also agreed to institute a fully transparent system in the management of the oil sector,” said Amum, but that has not yet resulted in the regular flow of revenue to the south.
In early November of this year, the SPLM and the Khartoum government agreed to withdraw their forces from the Abyei region and allow it to be controlled by a joint military force, a move that could significantly ease tensions.
Both sides are to complete the withdrawal by January 8, the day before the three-year anniversary of the signing of the 2005 peace agreement, but have been slow to do so.
In order to break the deadlock, however, some Sudanese officials indicated that they might accept international mediation to break the deadlock over the Abyei region.
In November, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reportedly suggested to Kiir during his visit to Washington that China, Saudi Arabia and the US would propose a solution to the Abyei impasse.
“If all attempts to resolve the Abyei crisis politically or through internal mechanisms fail, then we have no problem resorting to international mediation,” Dr Mutrif Siddiq Ali, the undersecretary of the Sudanese foreign ministry told the London-based publication, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Returning to war over Abyei is not an option, he said.
Despite these assurances, however, the boundary dispute rages and the security situation in Abyei remains unstable.