The question of a gerrymandered “oil rich” Abyei – Sudan, a nation divided

Reading time 4 min.
Map of Sudan (excerpt)
Map of Sudan (excerpt)

Abyei could very well be an excuse for a new North-South war. It is reportedly oil rich and both the North and South want it. But is Abyei originally northern or southern? The fourth in our series of articles about Sudan’s pending referenda looks at the impact of the Abyei region on the democratic process as well as the tactics being applied to place it on the northern Sudan side of the map despite its cultural, ethnic and geographic positioning.

Abyei’s tag as an “oil rich” region has been put to question in recent days. Writing in The Contributor, November 2, 2010, Rebecca Hamilton has the following to say on the subject:

“In 2004, when the final stages of the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) were underway, the Abyei area was indeed ‘oil rich.’ There were two major oilfields to the east of Abyei town, Heglig and Bamboo, and another to the north called Diffra.

“Back then, the combined production of the three fields was an estimated 76,600 barrels per day (bpd). If you crunch the numbers, this amounted to 25 percent of Sudan’s annual oil production. With so much at stake, ‘oil-rich’ summed up perfectly the reasons why Abyei was an obstacle to the conclusion of the peace agreement.”

Rebecca Hamilton argues that six years after the final stages of the CPA, the accuracy of Abyei’s “oil-rich” tag has been reduced by two factors:

“First, oil production from Heglig, Bamboo, and Diffra has declined across the board. From the 76,600 bpd of 2004, the 2009 estimates for the three fields dropped to 28,300 bpd. Meanwhile, production from outside the area increased. By early 2009, ‘oil-rich’ Abyei only accounted for 5 percent of Sudan’s annual production.”

The second factor, she says, stems from a July 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which placed Heglig and Bamboo outside of Abyei, despite the fact that these two fields physically remain in the broader border region; and so these gerrymandered districts are no longer up for grabs in the Abyei referendum.

“The only oilfield now remaining in the Abyei equation is Diffra, estimated to have produced just 4,000 bpd in 2009 – less than 1 percent of Sudan’s current annual production.”

There is also the fact that oil production from fields in North Sudan will reach 110,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of 2010. Currently, most of Sudan’s oil (500,000 barrels per day of crude) comes from the South.

It is believed that South Sudan, after the referendum, plans to set up three oil refineries as well as a pipeline from Juba to Lamu (Kenya) to export its oil through Kenyan ports. China is one of the bidders to build such a pipeline.

Still, it is safe to say that Abyei continues to be a thorn in the referendum process. Ethnically, Abyei is Christian Ngok Dinka, but the Khartoum government has settled thousands of the nomadic Arab Misseriya Muslims, who travel to fertile Abyei to graze their cattle during the dry season, in the past few years to add to the number of “Arabs.”

It may be noted that the Heglig oil fields, which were part of Abyei, were handed over to the North by the international border arbitration.

The proposed sharing of the oil revenues between an independent South, the North and the Massiriya Arabs could be a dangerous entreprise. Oil or not, Abyei promises to be a problem point for the Sudan. And a referendum, unfortunately, is not enough to solve an already complex situation.

The impact of the postponement of the Abyei referendum will be serious as this is one major area of contention. The North can live without Sudan, as it were, if Abyei falls under its control. The South cannot fathom paying its rank and file if deprived of its oil revenue. An irresponsibly gerrymandered Abyei and an unending conflict scenario go hand in glove.

Read also :

Part 1: The Price of Independence

Part 2: Beginnings of the end

Part 3: Teaming up with Egypt for the Nile

Part 4: The question of a gerrymandered “oil rich” Abyei

Part 5: A nation divided: Where does Ethiopia stand?

Part 6: Eritrea and Ethiopia’s proxy war

Part 7: The United States, Britain and China

Part 8: A nation divided: separation and peace possible?

Part 9: Sudan — A nation divided: What is to be expected

Sudan - A nation divided  The stakes are high as Southern Sudanese head for the polls to decide on whether or not they want to break away from the North. While the North-South tug of war is centred around oil and the Nile’s water, ethnicity and religion have proved to be the breaking point in a highly polarized country. As fear of war looms with the two sides amassing weapons, what is the role of regional players, including Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya and Kenya, who stand to lose or gain from Sudan’s split or union? And what about the international community, the African Union, the Arab League? Our series of articles highlight a troubled history of the Sudan and the Horn of Africa region, including their allies, and also tackle questions surrounding who stands to gain or lose from the pending referenda.
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