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'Oil-rich' Abyei: Time to update the shorthand for Sudan's flashpoint border town?

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

(Read caption) People from the Dinka tribe hold placards during a demonstration calling for the immediate formation of the Abyei oil region referendum commission and protesting against the settlement of the Massireya tribe in their area on Sept. 23, 2010. Sudan still has to name a commission to organise a referendum on whether the central oil-producing region of Abyei should remain in north Sudan or join the south, a vote due to take place on January 9, 2011.

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The failure to agree on who gets to vote in a Jan. 9 referendum on whether the key strategic Sudanese town of Abyei will remain part of northern Sudan or become part of what could be a newly independent south is leading pundits to cite Abyei as a possible trigger for a return to war.

Accordingly, the number of articles on the Abyei referendum has sky-rocketed. Read any of the media coverage and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find the phrase “oil-rich” placed somewhere in front of the town’s name. But these days the accuracy of the journalistic short-hand is questionable.

In 2004, when the final stages of the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement were underway, the Abyei area was indeed “oil rich.” There were two major oilfields to the east of Abyei town, Heglig and Bamboo, and another to the north called Diffra.

Back then, the combined production of the three fields was an estimated 76,600 barrels per day (bpd). If you crunch the numbers, this amounted to 25 percent of Sudan’s annual oil production. With so much at stake, “oil-rich” summed up perfectly the reasons why Abyei was an obstacle to the conclusion of the peace agreement.

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