The biggest civil war in Africa's history is looming, and the world naps. (The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof is awake, but groggy). The sad fact is that we, in the West, are only roused to Africa's ills after the fact. I think we like it that way. Mourning failed states is a lot easier than fixing them.
Bill Clinton's spent better part of the last decade affecting a hang-dog, revisionist pout about how his "personal failure" to react to the 100-day Rwandan killing binge is the greatest regret of his presidency; and twenty-five years after the start of the war we've all been convinced — from Colin Powell to Samantha Power to Don Cheadle — that the "genocide" (my quotes, folks, because there wasn't one) in Darfur is, was, the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the Sudan.
To put a fine point on it: the war that could very well ignite the entire Horn of Africa will start in the Sudan, in a dust-choked town separating the Sudan's Islamic north from its Christian/animist south. This town is called Abyei and this is where what we now refer to as the "crisis in Darfur" kicked off in the early 80's.
If Darfur broke your heart, what could go down in Abyei will crush it.
Here's a reductive, down and dirty informational triage of the situation on the ground:
Sudan: Long-standing animosity between an Islamist (in every warm and fuzzy iteration the word connotes) ruling northern population, and a mostly tribal/Christian south.
Abyei: Part of the Bahr El Ghazal region—is smack dab in the middle of the country. At some points in time, Abyei's been considered part of the north; at others, part of the south. The residents themselves—primarily a tribe called the Ngok Dinka—have always considered themselves culturally southern. Northern, southern—why does a designation even matter? Oil. The south has it, the north doesn't.
Blessed and cursed with the lion's share of the country's reserves, Abeyi is stuck in the middle. Since the Chevron Corporation discovered light sweet crude in the area a quarter century ago, the northern government has attempted to displace the historic residents of Abyei with nomadic Arabs friendly to the sharia state. These Arabs stormed in, on horseback and Land Cruisers, cutting the men and women through with AK 47's and enslaving the children.
When the residents of Bahr el Ghazal fought back, a 25 year civil war began. Most of the violence in the Sudan took place in the south, not in Darfur. The bloodshed seeped north, toward Darfur, as the Arab population grew increasingly chary of any non-Islamists in their midst.
In 2005, the Bush administration was able to get one thing right, and helped broker a peace treaty. Southern Sudan was granted autonomy, with a referendum on formal secession slated for 2011. Everybody was happy, except that everybody wasn't. Abyei, you see, was left out of the treaty, its north-south status to be defined at some later date.
When residents and officials of Abyei started making noises about seceding along with the rest of the south, the northerners claimed that the region belonged to them. The Ngok Dinka of Abyei disagreed.
They were sick of Sharia law and marauding Arabs and [Sudanese President] Omar Al Bashir doing a Daniel Day Lewis and stealing all the oil from their homeland in the world's most obscene grab of resources imaginable. They were southerners.
At a rally in Khartoum in November, Omar Al Bashir vowed, in front of a crowd of thousands, that Sudan would not budge "so much as an ant's body" when it came to surrendering Abyei to the south. There's too much oil revenue from the Chinese for him to just let the region go. His "diplomatic" solution thus far has been to flood Abyei with Arab northerners, so that when the census in advance of the referendum—scheduled for 2009—is taken, Arabs will make up most of the population.
He's got a shot at making that case. After 25 years of war, the Ngok Dinka have been slow to return to their homeland. Abyei, a desiccated city of cardboard, corrugated metal, choking dust and 60,000 restive souls, now teems with Dinka and Muslim, each side hoping to tip the balance. To the victor go the oils.
As of this writing, Arab raids have begun in Heglig, north of Abyei. The Southern People's Liberation Army—the army of the south, is gearing up along Abyei's borders. I have seen them, watched them train.
When I worried about the Horn of Africa's going up as well—it wasn't just a doomsday imagining of unlikely events. Sudan has nine—count 'em, nine—bordering nations. Do the math.
Kenya: in real trouble, with unrest resurfacing outside Nairobi again.
Chad: Sudan's competitor for oil, already being attacked by Bashir along the border, home to over 200,000 Darfurian refugees, its leadership contested by a handful of coup happy rebel groups.
Ethiopia: they'd probably help the southern Sudanese, but they've got their own problems keeping the Eritreans in line.
Eritrea: an inchoate Islamist state, they'd love to see Ethiopia pulled into a conflict that diverted its attentions—they might even forge some alliance with Bashir in a land grab.
I haven't even gotten to Libya or Uganda yet. Most of these players will be pulled into war if the Sudan explodes: the plight of refugees, Muslim versus Christian, the pie-chart of oil and resources will make it impossible to remain neutral.
And all the while, it's sleepy time in the West. Peace can't be achieved without U.S. help, but we're sleepwalking through another two wars, fighting for our "freedom" or for oil or for something none of us can figure out.
A friend of mine, a Ngok Dinka Chief named Kwall Byong Kwoll, put it to me, under the thatched roof of his mud hut: "Why won't our big brother U.S.A. help us, so we can give our oil to you in gratitude? Why won't the U.S.A. love us like they love the Israelites?"
We will, Kwoll, just let us grab a couple more winks.
David Matthews is the author of the memoir 'Ace of Spades' (Picador Press) and the upcoming biography 'Brother Superior,' to be published by Penguin Press in 2009.