By Ian Timberlake, Abdelmoneim Abu Idris Ali
March 28, 2014 (Khartoum) – A top aide to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir says the presence of South Sudanese troops in the disputed border area of Abyei threatens peace less than three years after the two countries split.
In an interview with AFP, presidential assistant Ibrahim Ghandour said peace was possible by an April deadline in Sudan’s rebellious state of South Kordofan, where conflict has raged since just before partition.
But while being “relatively optimistic” about the prospects for an end to war in South Kordofan, Ghandour said the presence of South Sudanese security forces in Abyei was “not conducive for peace between the two countries and may create problems again”.
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The UN Security Council has called the situation in UN-patrolled Abyei “highly volatile” and demanded the withdrawal of both South Sudanese security personnel and Sudanese forces guarding a small oil complex.
A February report by UN chief Ban Ki-moon said there were about 660 South Sudanese soldiers and police, and up to 150 Sudanese oil police in the disputed area.
Abyei had been due to hold a plebiscite on which of the two countries it wished to join. The ballot was to take place alongside the January 2011 referendum in which the south voted to break way.
But the Abyei ballot never happened in the face of deadlock between the two sides over who should be entitled to vote. Five months later, northern troops stormed the territory, beginning a year-long occupation.
The area is home to the settled Ngok Dinka tribe, closely connected to South Sudan, as well as the semi-nomadic Arab Misseriya, who traditionally move back and forth from Sudan grazing their cattle, and who demand a say in the territory’s future governance.
Ghandour said Khartoum was trying to avoid a new resort to military action, particularly while South Sudan remains locked in conflict between government troops and forces loyal to its ousted vice president Riek Machar.
“We will try to use all political and diplomatic as well as AU (African Union) avenues in order to resolve that,” he said.
In the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the AU is mediating between Khartoum and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.
Two rounds of talks this year have made slow progress, but the AU’s peace and security council has called for a ceasefire deal by April 30.
“It is possible,” Ghandour said, welcoming the deadline.
“We don’t want to leave it open-ended.”
– Separate peace deals first –
Like the 11-year-old insurgency in Sudan’s western Darfur region, the Kordofan war has been fuelled by complaints among non-Arab groups of neglect and discrimination by the Arab-dominated regime.
Analysts say the country’s multiple conflicts need to be addressed within a comprehensive national framework.
Ghandour said such a “holistic” approach is possible — but only after an end is brought to each conflict individually.
“Definitely, definitely because the cases are very different,” he told AFP in the rare interview with Western journalists by a high-ranking Khartoum official.
At his office in an annexe of Sudan’s colonial-era Republican Palace, Ghandour said that bringing an end to the country’s insurgencies was the nation’s number one challenge.
Faced with armed uprisings, a worsening economy, and deadly anti-government protests in the capital last September, Bashir appealed in January for a broad national dialogue, including with armed rebels.
Inflation remains near 40 percent and Ghandour said price rises are “really intolerable” for the average person.
“It’s always expected that people may protest but Sudanese people are very smart,” he said.
“From what they see around us, I think they believe that it is better to be patient, since they see the government taking serious steps toward improving the economy.”
Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur, took power 25 years ago in an Islamist-backed coup.
Whether he will seek a new term in a presidential election due next year hinges on an October convention of his ruling National Congress Party, Ghandour said.
“He declared many times that he’s not willing to, but the decision will still be with the convention.”