Sudan is always in the headlines, it seems, but the news is rarely good. Most recently, 113,000 people in Abyei, the oil-rich area between the north and the south, fled their homes in fear of the northern troops who had entered the region in May to assert their claim to it.

Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, brokered an agreement to demilitarize Abyei, and the United Nations Security Council resolved to deploy 4,200 peacekeeping troops. But the border through Abyei has yet to be clearly drawn and an oil agreement between the north and south has yet to be reached. Until these issues are settled, the threat of more bloody conflict in the region remains.

President Barack Obama should work with China and the Arab League to settle the lingering disputes.

Sudan’s long civil war between the Arab/Muslim north and black/Christian south, in which millions were killed and millions more were forced to leave their homes, technically ended six years ago. Still, the terms of the peace agreement have not been entirely fulfilled. The north and the south were supposed to agree on their boundary in Abyei and on an equitable way to divide oil revenue before the south held a referendum on independence.

An oil agreement is needed because 75 percent of Sudan’s oil, the country’s main economic asset, is found in the south. The south is landlocked, and the oil must be exported through the north.

Unfortunately, no agreement on the border or the oil income could be reached. The referendum went ahead anyway, and on Jan. 9, almost 99 percent of the southern Sudanese voted for independence. The African Union then appointed Mbeki to mediate solutions on the outstanding issues.

Preventive Diplomacy Needed

At this point, support from the U.S., China and the Arab League would strengthen Mbeki’s hand, especially with the north. China is a major buyer of Sudan’s oil, and the Arab League has clout with the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. Obama, for his part, has demonstrated a personal interest in Sudan by appointing a special envoy in 2009.

Now, Obama should work with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi to encourage the UN and African Union to schedule a referendum in Abyei to settle its status. If the north and south can’t agree on rules for such a vote, Mbeki should be given the authority to impose a solution. Such a strategy worked in 1995 in Bosnia when the Serbs, Croats and Muslims couldn’t agree on the status of the strategic town of Brcko.

The U.S. should also build a coalition to carry a joint warning to Khartoum that improving relations will be impossible if the north continues to provoke conflict.

And the Chinese should be encouraged to tell northern leaders that they oppose actions that threaten to disrupt the flow of oil.

The history of conflict in Africa shows that the rest of the world usually fails to act until after casualties reach into the hundreds of thousands. In the case of Sudan, intensive diplomacy now could break that tragic pattern.

That would be preferable to being forced to act after renewed conflict causes more death in Sudan and a new wave of refugees seeking shelter in Egypt, Libya and neighboring countries.

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