ABYEI, Sudan — This market town serves as kind of a fulcrum balancing perhaps the most important peace treaty in Africa.
Much rides on the stability of the nearly four-year-old agreement between the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum and the former rebel movement in the mostly Christian and animist southern Sudan: considerable oil wealth; the calm, such as it is, in Sudan and several neighboring states; the future of Darfur.
But Abyei, once a thriving city of 30,000, is now an empty, blackened wreck.
It is still smoldering from the first significant outburst of sectarian violence since the peace pact was signed, an eruption last May that destroyed the town and emphasized the delicate health of the treaty.
“It is fragile but it is fundamental; it is absolutely vital to get it right because if the North-South agreement fails, everything else will also fall apart,” said John Holmes, the emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, during a recent whirlwind tour of the area. “If that goes, you can forget about Darfur; it is just a side show.”
While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the crisis in Darfur, the stakes are much higher in southern Sudan. At more than 40 years, the war in the south lasted longer and was far more brutal than what Darfur has endured. An estimated two million people were killed and some four million displaced in the 15 years before the 2005 treaty.
In Darfur, the death count is not known, but Mr. Holmes estimated that up to 300,000 fatalities could be attributed to the outbreak of war.
The fear in the south is that some small spark — like the confrontation of a few soldiers at a checkpoint in Abyei last May — could reignite the conflagration not just in one town, but across the south. That in turn might draw in combatants from the governments or rebel movements in the countries around southern Sudan, few of them models of stability. They include Congo, the Central African Republic and Uganda.
But since the two sides reached the peace agreement in 2005, the world has to some extent stopped paying attention. “We work in the shadow of Darfur,” said David Gressly, the regional coordinator in the southern capital, Juba, for the United Nations mission in Sudan. “In general there was a lack of engagement in what was going on here.”
The thousands who fled the town or its immediate environs remain displaced, their insecurity confirmed by a skirmish early this month that left two policemen dead.
“If there is peace, these things should not happen,” said Amol Bol, a 57-year-old sorghum farmer who, like thousands of others, remains stuck in a shantytown of reed and plastic huts around the town of Akog, south of Abyei. “Now we live in fear that this peace will fall apart, because we were attacked in our houses.”
Kuol Deng Kuol, the paramount tribal chief, said government soldiers burned all 50 of his tukuls, the mud brick huts with conical thatched roofs that dot the countryside here. “They want to chase us away from the area, to create a reality that there are no Dinka living in Abyei,” he said. “The peace may have been signed, but the implementation is not going in the right direction.”
Both sides were dragging their feet in carrying out the peace plan, initially envisioned as a six-year transition culminating in a 2011 referendum on whether the south would achieve independence or Sudan would remain united. Complicated national elections are scheduled before that, with the date depending on an uncompleted census. In theory, there is a government of national unity from both sides overseeing it all, but Sudanese officials and diplomats point out that there is little real integration.
That problem was particularly acute around Abyei. The shock of the violence finally prompted both sides to agree to a set of reinforced peace guidelines last June. Among other things, it calls for the integration of police and army units from the north and south, a process that still lags, and the sharing of oil revenues from the area, a continuing problem. Both sides also agreed to submit their border demarcation dispute around Abyei to international arbitration, with a decision due around next June.
But progress is slow, and it is not hard to see why both sides would be stalling.
A sign welcoming passengers approaching the squat terminal of the airport at Juba neatly captures the wrinkle in the fight for autonomy: “Our Peace. Our Land. Our Oil. Our Liberty.”
The most significant oil resources in southern Sudan lie right along the still-unmarked border between north and south, with notable deposits underneath Abyei. The inability to agree on how to share that oil is holding up the peace process. As it stands now, though, if the south votes for independence in 2011, it will take some 80 percent of the reserves with it.
It has no way of getting the oil out of the landlocked south without relying on the north, unless it wants to invest billions of dollars in precious resources in building a pipeline to the sea, most likely through Kenya. Thus, diplomats say they believe that the crucial piece of the plan stalling peace is the lack of a long-term deal for sharing oil revenues. “The fight over land on the border is a proxy discussion for the fight over oil,” said Richard Williamson, President Bush’s special envoy for Sudan.
There is consensus on this among outsiders, even if senior officials from both sides try to dismiss the oil argument, noting that the north and south have been hostile toward each other basically since independence from Britain in 1956. Both sides also vow they are committed to the peace plan because the war cost so much. The problem is that the leisurely pace of carrying out the peace agreement now threatens stability. Mr. Williamson noted that the agreement was past the halfway mark of a six-year process. That gives plenty of scope for history, raw nerves and the lingering bitterness to wear away at the treaty, he said.
“This is a peace agreement that needs constant tending if it is ever going to turn into a garden,” he said.