Last month the Northern Sudanese army, helped by Misseriya tribesmen, attacked the disputed town of Abyei, which lies on the border between North and South Sudan. President Bashir said the invasion, which was preceded by artillery and aerial bombardments, was in retaliation for an attack on his own troops. Most of those who live in Abyei, which has a population of 40,000, are Southern Sudanese – and thousands more returned there from the North in the weeks before and after January’s independence referendum. After the attack most of the town’s inhabitants fled across the sluggish brown river they call the Kiir. More joined the exodus, until something like 100,000 people were moving south on foot. In Abyei, tanks were parked on the roads, homes set alight, possessions stolen, and the UN compound, which was the town’s most prominent feature, was hit by mortars, its helicopters fired on and its food warehouses looted. The bridge across the Kiir was blown up. ‘Abyei is Northern Sudanese land,’ President Bashir declared in Khartoum. In Juba, the Southern president, Salva Kiir, said he wouldn’t be drawn into another war when independence was so close.

None of this was new to Abyei. It had all happened before. Exactly three years ago, in May 2008, Abyei the town was razed during an invasion from the North over the same issues. ‘The North does not want us, it wants our land,’ one Dinka sub-chief, Kuol Deng Maluak, had told me, not long before the town was occupied. His friends murmured agreement. They felt betrayed by an international community that has witnessed numerous peace agreements on Sudan yet fails to act when their conditions are breached. ‘Why is Bashir stronger than the international community? Where is the power above Bashir?’ one of them asked.

In 1905, Britain, then sharing the colonial administration of Sudan with Egypt, signed Abyei over to the region of Kordofan, in the centre of Sudan, which is mainly occupied by Arab tribes like the Misseriya. The peace deal that ended the first Sudanese civil war, which lasted from independence in 1956 until 1972, included a pledge that the people of Abyei would be allowed to decide whether they wanted to be part of the North or the South. But no vote was held and civil war soon returned. Abyei’s Ngok Dinka were at the forefront of the SPLA; the North used Misseriya nomads as a Janjaweed-style fighting force in the border region and they proved adept at scorched-earth tactics, clearing the land for oil exploration by Chinese and Malaysian companies. An entire chapter of the 241-page Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 was devoted to Abyei, but it didn’t resolve the issue: its residents were described as ‘citizens of both Western Kordofan [in the North] and Bahr el-Ghazal [in the South]’.

The CPA described Abyei as ‘the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905’. No one had ever mapped this territory and so the Abyei Boundary Commission was established to define its limits. Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) rejected the commission’s report in July 2005. Arguments and occasional conflict followed, culminating in the May 2008 razing of Abyei, after which Khartoum and Juba agreed to refer the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The court’s decision the following year diminished Abyei, awarding two of its three oilfields, Bamboo and Heglig, to the North; Diffra remained in Abyei. It produces perhaps 4000 barrels of oil a day, less than 1 per cent of Sudan’s daily total. Locally, it’s widely believed that a wealth of undiscovered oil lies beneath Abyei, but industry experts are less convinced, and production in Diffra and most of Sudan’s other fields is dropping every year.

Four-fifths of Sudan’s estimated six billion barrels of oil reserves lie in the South, but since the only pipelines lead to the North the two sides have to come to an agreement. The expectation is that the South will keep the revenue while paying above market rate for use of the North’s pipelines and refineries, thus giving the North some share of the $4 billion annual revenue from the Southern fields. Under the 2005 peace agreement half the revenue from these fields was given to the North.

Oil is one contentious issue; land is another. The Ngok Dinka live in Abyei all year round. They are farmers and livestock keepers: the grandest huts in their villages are for the cows. Misseriya nomads move to the region in the harsh dry season, drawn to the fertile pastures and the perennial waters of the Kiir, or Bahr el-Arab as they call it. Resources are scarce and weapons plentiful, so relations between the nomads and their Ngok Dinka neighbours and competitors have always been strained and frequently violent. A row over whether Misseriya nomads were eligible to vote in a referendum over the region’s future, which was to be held on the same day as the separation referendum (Khartoum said yes, Juba said no), meant that the vote in the region was indefinitely postponed.

‘The people of Abyei are the ones who shot the first bullet for revolution,’ John Ajiang Kiir, a local administrator in Abyei, proudly told me. This isn’t true but the sentiment is accurate enough: Ngok Dinka leaders say their people fought, died and suffered for the South’s independence, and to be left behind now would be a terrible act of betrayal. The Misseriya too harbour fears of betrayal: they fought for Khartoum and were promised a homeland in return. Instead, they saw their state of Western Kordofan administratively subsumed into South Kordofan in 2005 and now they believe they might well lose access to their most fertile pastures and the river that waters them. Bashir, already weakened by the South’s impending separation, cannot afford to alienate them, but the taking of Abyei was a rash gamble. ‘For the North the occupation of Abyei is about being in control of territory on the ground, and thus influencing both the ultimate outcome in Abyei and strengthening their negotiating hand on everything else,’ says Zach Vertin, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. ‘Abyei has assumed a significance and complexity far beyond the fundamental dispute on the ground.’

Abyei is only the most combustible of the contested provinces of Southern Sudan. As Ajiang Kiir told me, ‘Sudan is a big land composed of many tribes, there is no “united Sudan”, just ethnic kingdoms.’ As January’s referendum drew near, a unity of purpose emerged in the South, but no sooner were the ballots counted and the common enemy defeated than old enmities re-emerged. Even before the assault on Abyei, Oxfam had already counted 1400 dead and 117,000 forced from their homes since the start of the year.

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