Originally Published 2011-06-06 00:00:00 Published on Jun 06, 2011
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's bold act of barging into the Abyei territory with his troops is a sure act of defiance and it remains to be seen to what extent this conflict can be kept from turning into a full-blown war.
Sudan: The Abyei crisis and a mismanaged diversity
On May 21, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir sent troops to Abyei region, sparking of a set of violent clashes with an estimated death of 116 civilians, and resulting in the displacement of 150,000 people. A supposedly oil-rich region, the Abyei region has been claimed by both the Khartoum government and the soon to seceded South Sudan region, and is a real bone of contention for South Sudan's formative independence on July 9 of this year. The seizure by the northern troops not only threatens the ceasefire and is in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, but also has deeply enraged the Darfuri rebel movements of the south, namely the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Before the violent seizure of the region, President al-Bashir issued two simultaneous decrees effectively dissolving Abyei's administrative council and firing all the top officials associated with the governing body.

The Abyei region, a small portion in the centre of Sudan, with an area of 10,460 square kilometre, a formative link between the Arab north and a Christian ethnically diverse south, was given a 'special administrative status' through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which brought an end to the second Sudanese civil war. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army and other Darfuri rebel groups that have a stronghold in the south, claim that Khartoum's seizure of the region, whose fate was supposed to be decided through a referendum this past January, has been illegal and in violation of CPA. 

President al-Bashir, who came to power through an Islamist coup in 1989 and has planned on tightening the enforcement of Sharia law if the Christian south secedes, has come under a lot of criticism by the international community and the UN for his seizure of Abyei. On June 1, the Obama administration sent its top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, to stress the gravity of situation and to emphasise US's deep concerns over the presence of Sudanese armed forced in Abyei. The situation in Sudan is an integral focus for US's war on terrorism as Sudan has been on their blacklist of states that sponsor terrorism since 1993. Khartoum government's main counter-insurgency force against the Darfur rebel groups has been through their state-sponsored grooming of the Janjaweed, the mostly Sudanese Arab armed militia.

As the status of the Abyei region remains undecided, with the SPLA rejecting President al-Bashir proposal of a rotational administrative body governing Abyei, the conflict brings to the fore the deep divisions that are not only divide the north of Sudan from the south, but that create internal frailties within south itself. Abyei is mainly claimed by a southern ethnic group, the Dinka Ngok, as well as for part of the year by the northern nomadic tribe Misseriya, which takes them into the soon to be independent south to trek to greener pastures. What is interesting to note here is how will the creation of political boundaries affect the dictates of a nomadic lifestyle, which historically takes this particular community across borders?

The most important aspect of governance for Sudan has been its ability to manage diversity, at which it has truly failed. A region that is home to hundreds of local, ethnic tribes along with foreign Arab groups, what has essentially emerged is a fundamental identity crisis from decades of mismanaged diversity and the creation of a perpetual hostility. As the Arab north tried resolving the region's racial and cultural anomalies, its assimilation mechanisms have been regressive and have resulted in a zero-sum game between the Muslim north and the indigenously African and Christian south. The centralizing framework with which Sudanese government has historically worked and continues to do so under President al-Bashir, denies the ethnic tribes any leeway to practice their own indigenous religions, or Christianity for that matter. The strict enforcement of Sharia law, and the Islamization of the state has been problematic for these communities, such as the Dinga Ngok of Abyei, that have an entirely separate, deeply rooted, form of governance. This particular ethnic group for example, has a tradition where a young man who comes of age can create his own kin group, which would be regarded as separate from his paternal kin group. Thus in these sub-divisions there is a deeper fragmentation of the ethnic group that values autonomy and the creation of separate and solid identities. 

Given this fragmented lineage system and constituencies, these ethnic tribes have in-built a unique form of governance, which comes into clash with an external imposition of artificial state mechanisms of governance. Thus, it remains to be seen how more than anything, the state is able to deal with managing its diversity and the peaceful co-existence of various tribes. As the Abyei conflict unfolds, President Kiir of Southern Sudan has stated that there will be no war over the incursion, and that the path to independence will not be derailed. However, President al-Bashir's bold act of barging into the Abyei territory with his troops is a sure act of defiance and it remains to be seen to what extent this conflict can be kept from turning into a full-blown war.

Anjana Varma is Research Assistant, ORF
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