Sudan Back on the Brink

The North's Invasion of Abyei Could Spark Another Civil War

In January, the United States and much of the international community celebrated as the people of south Sudan voted in a long-awaited referendum on whether to secede from Sudan and form a new country. Ninety-eight percent voted yes. The balloting was considered free and fair; U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his statesmanlike acceptance of the results and promise of future cooperation with the south when it gains formal independence on July 9.

But as has so often been the case in Sudan's bloody past, the international community's relief may have been premature. As Michael Abramowitz and I warned in an essay in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, "the centrifugal forces pulling Sudan apart" are accelerating at such a pace that the south's secession could lead to "the eventual dissolution of the remaining north Sudanese state."

On Monday, Bashir issued a statement accusing southern troops (the SPLA) of ambushing northern troops (the SAF) in Abyei taking part in a joint convoy with UN forces. (It is not clear how many troops were killed and international observers believe it unlikely that southern leaders ordered the attack.) In retaliation, Sudanese warplanes and artillery began bombing the civilian population in Abyei, long referred to as the Kashmir of Sudan because it sits on the disputed border between the north and the south. The UN has not yet announced civilian casualty figures, but already the bombing has displaced 15,000 Ngok Dinka inhabitants, who are now moving south for protection. Arab tribes appear to be moving in to occupy the area. For centuries, Abyei had been the homeland of the Dinkas, the dominant tribe in southern Sudan. But in the 1980s and 1990s, local Arab tribes drove them from the region in a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing directed by the government in Khartoum. The Dinkas make up 40 percent of the south's population and represent a powerful part of both the south's government and its army. They demand the return of Abyei to the south.

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