Guardian Comment: Sudan's proxy war may escalate

|The original is here. Co-written with Nicky Woolfe|

The Sudanese town of Abyei is deserted. The stick structures that line the streets are the bones of future homes, abandoned in the face of continuing unrest. On 2 March, militias attacked police positions in the village of Maker, 6km north of Abyei town. Since then tens of thousands of people have fled to the south, fearing a repeat of the clashes of 2008, which left the town almost totally destroyed.

In January, Abyei was supposed to have a referendum to decide whether it wanted to rejoin Southern Sudan, to run concurrently with the southern referendum on secession. It never happened.

The National Congress party (NCP), the ruling clique in the north, insisted that the Misseriya, semi-nomadic Arabs who graze their cattle in Abyei for a part of the year, should be able to vote. The Ngok Dinka, the principal residents of Abyei and ethnically Southern Sudanese, feared that if the Misseriya were to take part in the referendum, the NCP would flood the area with people who would vote to stay in the north.

An aide to African Union president, Thabo Mbeki, said privately that "there can't be a referendum because … if the Missiriya aren't allowed to vote, they will fight. If they are, the Dinka will fight."

But fighting has come to Abyei nonetheless. Attacks in January during the referendum period left more than 100 dead. Recent clashes have been even more severe. Misseriya militias attacked police positions, occupied by the southern forces of the Abyei administration, leaving 154 people dead, and four villages razed.

During Abyei's arid dry season, the Misseriya traditionally drive their cattle south, to the river Kiir, below Abyei town. Such grazing rights are enshrined in the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement that ended Sudan's 20-year civil war. Despite this agreement, the Misseriya fear that if Abyei joins a newly independent Southern Sudan, and a national boundary is placed along the top of the territory, their grazing routes will be blocked.

This year, the Misseriya herders have not come further south than the river Ngol, which stretches through the middle of the Abyei. The militia attacks, on the other hand, have gone much further than that. In reaction, the Ngok Dinka are increasingly militarised, and there is a hardening of attitudes on both sides. Frustrated by years of uncertainty and violence, many Ngok Dinka insist that the Misseriya cannot graze in the territory until there is a resolution of Abyei's political status.

The recent violence has made this seasons' migration all but impossible. Before the clashes broke out on 27 February, the herders withdrew their cattle to the north. Above Abyei town, there are no civilians; only military forces remain. Such attacks are not a usual part of the annual migration. Instead, the clashes are part of a concerted political strategy hatched in Khartoum that has ramifications far beyond the annual grazing routes.

Just who is involved in the attacks remains uncertain. The NCP claims that the attackers are errant Missiriya militias. If this is true, they are very well equipped militias. Todac, a village 15km north-east of Abyei, was attacked by fighters armed with 60mm mortars, and 12.7mm heavy machine guns mounted on land cruisers. Witnesses to the clashes report that some of the attackers were wearing northern military uniforms.

Somewhat more plausibly, the Abyei administration claims these forces are armed and organised by the NCP. Documents obtained by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2011 show shipments of small arms and light weapons being delivered to Misseriya tribes, and the local administration reports that helicopters were used to evacuate injured militia fighters.

It wouldn't be the first time the northern government has used such tactics. During the second civil war, the Misseriya were also employed as a proxy militia, which razed great swathes of northern Abyei in attacks that would foreshadow the use of the more notorious Janjaweed in Darfur.

While it may be Misseriya fighters involved in the attacks, it is also the Misseriya who stand to lose the most. Though the fighters in these militias might have been told that Abyei rejoining the south will deprive them of their grazing rights, it is continuing clashes that will make future grazing impossible, and co-existence with the Ngok Dinka that is the Misseriya's sole chance for continued grazing in the region. Not that any of this worries the mind of northern president, Omar al-Bashir.

The Misseriya are pawns in a political chess game. At stake is political stability on both sides. There are the beginnings of protests in Khartoum – though they are being violently suppressed – and al-Bashir must be looking anxiously at his neighbours. After having spent so many years telling the Misseriya that Abyei belongs to them, a sudden about-face would provoke unrest, and they are a constituency al-Bashir cannot afford to lose. On the other side, the leading ranks of the south's ruling SPLM are full of politicians from Abyei. The Ngok Dinka were an important part of the civil war, and their land will not be given up without a fight. Neither side is likely to back down.

In the run-up to Southern Sudan's independence on 9 July, there are a series of delicate post-referendum issues to be discussed – how to divide up oil revenues, the tricky matter of the contested north-south border, and Abyei. It looks as if Bashir is again using violence as tool of negotiation, and creating insecurity in Abyei as a way of extracting further concessions on other issues.

On Saturday 5 March, just as high-level political delegates from both sides were leaving a meeting held in Abyei, designed to address the recent violence, militias fighters burnt down a village in the territory. It is uncertain whether this was yet another negotiating ploy, or an indication that the violence might spiral out of control, as errant militias battle Ngok Dinka increasingly desperate for a reunification with the south. The danger is that with neither party in total control of the actors on the ground, this is a proxy war with the potential to turn into a real one.