NAIROBI, KEYNA - It all went so well last January when Southern Sudanese cast their ballots in favour of separation. Perhaps too well.

There was a real joy among voters as they waited long hours in the baking sun. It's the kind of infectiously hopeful atmosphere you don't get to experience often as a reporter.

The Southern Sudanese are black Africans, most of them practise traditional African religions and Christianity. For decades, they have been second class citizens in their own country, paying with sometimes deadly consequences when they dared to rise up against an Islamist government which seems intent on assimilating all its citizens into a homogenous society in its own image.

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Carolyn Dunn, CBC's Africa correspondent, has reported from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Africa, Sudan and Libya.  Prior to this assignment, she was a national reporter on Parliament Hill and in Alberta. Dunn has had many other overseas assignments, including several tours in Afghanistan.

Imagine then, casting a ballot that would finally see them not conform as they had been told they must, but rather become their own country and determine their own fate for the first time.

None of the ominous forecasts of violence came to pass. Even Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, under great pressure from the international community, took on a resigned and even conciliatory tone in those days.

Peace agreement or 'lengthy ceasefire?'

It was a peace that would not last.

According to Fouad Hikmat, Sudan specialist with the International Crisis Group, what has happened since "reveals that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was nothing more than a lengthy ceasefire."

 On May 19, Southern Sudan launched an attack that would change everything. United Nations peacekeepers were escorting about 200 Sudanese troops out of the Abyei region when they came under heavy ambush. The South's Sudan People's Liberation Army claimed the ambush was in response to a series of attacks by northern troops.

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Armed uniformed men walk past burning businesses and homesteads locally known as tukuls in the centre of Abyei in this handout photograph released by the UN on May 28. Khartoum's army swept through Abyei in a matter of days. ((Stuart Price/United Nations Mission in Sudan/Reuters))

Whatever the case, that attack was viewed as a license for the Sudanese government to retaliate and seize control of Abyei under the guise of defending itself. The response was overwhelming in scale. Northern forces swept through Abyei in a matter of days, driving out more than 140,000 people.

Most of them are of the Dinka Ngok tribe and are loyal to the South. At the same time, surveillance showed northern forces filling the Abyei area with a nomadic Arabic tribe called the Misseriya.

An internal report to the UN was strategically leaked to the media calling Khartoum's actions, "tantamount to ethnic cleansing."

Publicly, Security Council President Nelson Messone chastised Khartoum, "The Security Council expresses grave concern… about the unusual, sudden influx of Misseriya into Abyei town and it's environs that could force significant changes in the ethnic composition of the area." Messone is Gabon's UN ambassador and this month serves as the Security Council's president.   Despite repeated demands by the UN for northern forces to withdraw immediately from Abyei, they have dug in and increased their area of violence and bombardment to include other disputed border towns and regions.

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Dinka Ngok people from Abyei are airlifted by the UN to Turalei in Southern Sudan, May 27. The Dinka are fleeing violence which an internal report to the UN called 'tantamount to ethnic cleansing.' ((Stuart Price/United Nations Mission in Sudan/Reuters))

Why Abyei?

Abyei has long been a flashpoint for disputes between northern and Southern Sudan. It is so contentious that is was purposely left out of January's independence referendum to try to avoid conflict.

Abyei sits on the north-south border and is often referred to as "oil rich." But, while its oilfields once contributed more than a quarter of Sudan's oil, production has declined and Abyei's oil field are believed to be nearing depletion.

Still, a key oil pipeline remains and as such is a key location for Sudan's oil export industry. Control of that pipeline is one reason why both northern and Southern Sudan would like to control Abyei.

The other reason is clearly ethnically based. The Arab Misseriya tribe has legal grazing rights in Abyei and claim the territory as their own. They are also fiercely loyal to Omar al-Bashir and his government in Khartoum. The Misseriya are a vital tribe to al-Bashir and his vision of Sudan as an wholly Islamist country.

Dinka Ngok on the other hand are decidedly Southern Sudanese. Southern Sudan's President Salva Kiir has publicly claimed Abyei as the land of the Dinka. Abyei symbolically represents the battle for several disputed border regions. Lands of people caught between two countries.

A Return to War?

Even as the days toward separation pass, there is still an overwhelming list of things to be decided.

Which side will win final control of Abyei and other disputed regions? How will oil revenues be split between the north and the south? How will Sudan's crushing debt be divided?

None of those questions have been answered since the referendum in January. It's unlikely they will be answered before the creation of South Sudan, as the new nation will be named, on July 9. In a climate of escalating violence some, like US Senator John Kerry, are warning Sudan is "ominously close to the precipice of war."

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The International Crisis Group's Fouad Hikmat told the CBC's Carolyn Dunn in Nairobi, Kenya that Khartoum is playing a high stakes game in Abyei. ((Carolyn Dunn/CBC))

That may be true, but not by design, says Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group. He believes al-Bashir and his National Congress Party are not intentionally courting war but rather playing a high stakes game to continue negotiations of those outstanding issues from a position of strength.

"These are tactical moves by the NCP to offset it being the underdog economic-wise and become the upper dog by putting themselves on the stronger side security wise," Hikmat theorizes.

The stakes for north and south

It is certainly a gamble for the al-Bashir government. There is a chance of reigniting a war with the south. But, the most likely consequence is that al-Bashir, already wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in the Darfur region, will completely alienate the international community.

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Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir at Khartoum Airport May 23. Although he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, the U.S. deals with al-Bashir as a powerbroker for peace in the region. ((Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters))

So strong is the desire to keep peace in the region, governments, including the United States, deal with al-Bashir, not as a wanted war criminal, but as a powerbroker for peace in the region. The U.S. knows al-Bashir wants Sudan removed from its list of nations that support terrorist activities and that is the carrot it continues to dangle to motivate al-Bashir.

For Southern Sudan, keeping the peace is an all or nothing proposition. It is a country starting essentially from scratch. And while it may enjoy a revenue stream from resources, building South Sudan will be done mostly out of the chequebooks of the international community. If it can keep the peace, billions of dollars will be poured into roads, schools, infrastructure and institution building.

Without peace, South Sudan could become a failed state even before its birth as a nation.