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The Borderlands of Sudan

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

With four months left before South Sudan is scheduled to vote on a referendum for independence, the 1,200 mile border separating the north and south of Sudan has not yet been established. A detailed picture of the complex situation along the line emerges in a new report, commissioned by the U.S. Institute of Peace and produced by Concordis International. The report offers snapshots of the border regions and how local issues could impact surrounding communities and a wider peace in Sudan.

The border is populated by a diversity of ethnic groups unprepared for and unfamiliar with the idea of formal separation. And the region must still contend with unresolved issues related to the division of resources and land, rights of citizenship and migration, and the phantom of security guarantees. The result is greater mistrust, amplified instability, and a hardening of conflict memory.

"Wartime patterns of conflict have emerged reinvigorated," the report describes. "Border communities in South Kordofan, Abyei, Bahr al Ghazal, South Darfur, and Upper Nile all said they would fight to ensure their claims to land ownership and land use are recognized and implemented."

Violence in 2009 in South Sudan (described in situation updates last September and December) has raised the question of whether a new south Sudan nation would or even could be united. The Concordis report explains, "'Tribal violence' in 2009 and the post-election defection of SPLA commanders have also exposed cleavages within the SPLA [South Sudanese Army] and wider southern societies, facilitated by the widespread presence of arms in the hands of civilians..."

Contest for land across the border region is driven by access to its resources, predominately oil, which makes up 98% of income to the government of South Sudan and 60% of total revenues to the government in the north. "Strategic interest in these resources is reflected in a history of redrawing boundaries in response to the economic opportunities they represent."

One of these contested areas is Abyei. Tucked along the north-south border, Abyei is marked by a network of streams and nomadic migration routes. It has traditionally been inhabited by the agro-pastoralist Ngok Dinka, but it also becomes home to the Humr section of the Misseriya, who move from northern lands to spend up to eight months each year grazing their animals in the Abyei area. The fate of the region shifted with the discovery of oil in 1979, and both the north and the south have claimed this strategically valuable land.

"Abyei is a lynchpin of the CPA and carries the potential to bring the parties back to war," the report states.

Inhabitants of Abyei will have the right to vote on whether they want to be part of the north or south in their own referendum, which will be held simultaneously with the south's referendum. But question over residency and tensions over land and natural resources remain. The Concordis report describes large numbers of Misseriya and Dinka reportedly trying to settle in the area ahead of the referendum. And Misseriya militia active in northern Abyei have publicly threatened to destabilize the referendum unless they are deemed eligible to participate.

"The next dry season starting in October will be the last opportunity to prevent insecurity spreading around the popular consultation and referendum time."