JUBA, South Sudan — In the past week, things have fallen apart in Sudan. With the clock ticking down toward the date when Africa's largest country officially breaks in two, the borderlands between the two would-be states have caught on fire.
Abyei, the most volatile north-south border hotspot, has once more become a proxy battleground where the northern and southern governments are acting out a dangerous high-stakes game through their respective armed forces. On Saturday evening, northern tanks rolled into the contested town, using aerial bombardments of nearby villages for cover.
Adding to the unfolding drama, as mortars fell into the United Nations peacekeeping mission base in Abyei, a U.N. Security Council delegation touched down in the northern capital of Khartoum to hold preparatory meetings ahead of the South's expected July 9 declaration of independence.
The day afterwards, North Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti snubbed the council, calling in sick for a meeting with the delegation. A meeting with Vice President Ali Osman Taha reportedly also did not occur. Sources present inside the talks that did happen with the northern government said the discussions were less than fruitful, with little indication that the Khartoum government intends to back down over Abyei.
The international community, including the United States, has broadly condemned the northern army's seizure of Abyei as a disproportionate response to a firefight last Thursday between northern and southern troops. That skirmish was likely started by the southern army, according to the State Department, though with rumors flying, divergent accounts constantly surfacing, and the Abyei territory largely emptied of its residents, U.N. civilian staff, and aid workers, accurate narratives of the sequence of events are proving elusive.
But there's no question the north struck back with a vengeance. According to a U.N. statement issued Monday, Khartoum's forces mounted a brazen military assault on the town on Saturday, sending southern troops scattering south, which enabled northern forces and allied militia forces to loot the town and burn property. The U.N. estimates that as many as 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
In a defiant speech Tuesday in Khartoum, northern President Omar Hassan al-Bashir insisted "Abyei is northern Sudanese land," and declared flatly, "We will not withdraw from it."
Bashir is in a strong position. Since the Saturday invasion, according to diplomats based in Sudan, northern militia forces have surged into Abyei, bolstering the ranks of regular northern army troops. The north's forces are widely seen as superior to the ragtag Sudan People's Liberation Army, the armed forces of the south. Retaking Abyei seems out of the question.
Meanwhile, the international community can do little other than express its outrage. As one Western diplomat in Juba told me on Sunday, "We can issue statements, but where's the leverage?" At the Security Council press conference Tuesday in Juba, specific details on how to compel Khartoum to immediately withdrawn its troops from Abyei were noticeably lacking.
It's unlikely either side will give in easily. Abyei symbolizes the still-open wounds that have held over from the bitter north-south civil war. Variously described as Sudan's Kashmir or Africa's Jerusalem, Abyei is not merely about fertile pasturelands, water access, or (rapidly declining) oil concessions. Its significance lies in its strategic location: Whichever side controls the area will have the upper hand after Sudan breaks in two.
"My overall feeling is that Abyei probably has political value as a sounding board," says Eddie Thomas, a long-time Sudan scholar affiliated with the Rift Valley Institute. "Maybe having a place where they can kick each other is useful for both of them." In other words, not all of the hard bargaining over the future of Sudan is being done diplomatically; some is being carried out on the battlefield.
The Abyei crisis takes place a little over a month ahead of South Sudan's formal break from the north. Talks between both sides, frequently mediated by an African Union panel led by former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki and supported behind the scenes by the United States, could now be at risk. Juba and Khartoum have yet to reach a deal on several explosive issues, including the division of Sudan's massive debt, the arrangements for sharing oil revenues, and the demarcation of the border. Despite the pleas of Western diplomats, Bashir and Southern President Salva Kiir have not met since the Abyei crisis boiled over, an indication that clearing the air will be painful.
What happens next is anybody's guess, but given that neither side is willing to back down on the most emotionally, politically, and militarily significant problem between them over the past six years of fragile peace, the most likely scenario is that Sudanese political leaders will negotiate in the manner they know best: not at the table, but through force on the ground.