But where exactly is Southern Sudan? This is the bigger question that most news articles trumpeting the referendum are ignoring. The new border has not yet been precisely drawn, and beyond the local squabbles over grazing rights and water rights is the larger issue as the border will become the new border between Black Africa and the Arab World. The geographical margin is small, but any doubt leaves open the possibility of local violence that could mushroom into something much worse. The key hotspot is Abyei, a town located on the western most light blue box on the map below, and which is representative of a larger problem in what is increasingly likely to be a demarcation creating a new country in Southern Sudan.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and their tribal allies, who are pushing hard for independence, are at loggerheads with the Misseriya nomadic pastoralists backed by the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over Abyei. A 2006 commission failed to demarcate a border between the north and south. This was escallated to a the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague in 2009, and a border was proposed and welcomed by the SPLM, their allies, and the NCP. But the Misseriya, which fought for the north in the civil war, refused to accept the border and after refusing to budge, the NCP, despite initially approving the settlement, backed out and supported the position of their former civil war partners.
Abyei is close to some of Sudan’s biggest oilfields, but the big cause of the dispute between the local tribes is not oil by water, a vital resource for the nomadic peoples who move their cattle south during the dry season (to a river known as Bahr al-Arab River to the Arabs, or the Kiir River to the southerners). It should also be noted that both sides are heavily armed.
Abyei is just one dispute of many contentious areas in Sudan. Some analysts argue that compromise between the north and south is likely because war will risk the benefit they gain from their mutual dependence on oil revenues and other cross-border economic ties. But as Abyei shows, they will probably have to follow the lead of local tribes (who were, and are, crucial to any confrontation between the north and south. Politics in Sudan, like in everywhere else in the world, is a slave to interest groups.