Ruling Signals Compromise On Border Dispute in Sudan

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 23, 2009

NAIROBI, July 22 -- A Hague-based court issued a crucial ruling Wednesday on a border dispute between the Sudanese government and the semiautonomous region of southern Sudan, striking a tenuous compromise on one of the most explosive issues facing the East African nation.

The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration awards control of a lucrative Chinese-run oil field in the region of Abyei to the Sudanese government but defines the region's boundaries in a way that is politically beneficial to the south.

Officials from the south and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's ruling party quickly promised to respect the ruling, which analysts called a major test of the fragile 2005 peace deal that ended the bloody north-south civil war. The conflict, one of Africa's longest, killed more than 2 million people.

The United States, which had strongly supported the deal four years ago, has expressed deep concern that tensions surrounding Abyei could reignite the civil war -- a conflict that would dwarf the ongoing one in Sudan's western Darfur territory and engulf the entire region. Mostly, the tensions these days relate to oil.

The 2005 deal calls for a referendum on southern independence in 2011 and, if the south secedes, a separate referendum in which the people of Abyei would decide whether to join northern Sudan or the newly independent south. But that deal left the borders of Abyei unsettled, raising questions about who would vote in the referendum and whether a major working oil field called Heglig was part of the region.

Wednesday's ruling adjusts the east-west borders of Abyei in a way that leaves Heglig outside the territory and part of the north. At the same time, the ruling leaves at least one smaller working oil field inside Abyei and defines the territory as populated mainly by the Ngok Dinka, a politically powerful nomadic tribe that considers itself southern and would probably vote to join the south in 2011.

"In a way, there's something for everybody in this ruling," said Douglas H. Johnson, a Sudan scholar who served on an earlier border commission, whose findings were rejected by the government. He said the ruling removes a major obstacle to implementing the rest of the peace deal.

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