Wednesday, 02 February 2011

Abyei: Flashpoint on the Sudan Border

Written by  Hussein Moulid

A referendum on independence for Southern Sudan — to determine whether the South should remain part of Sudan, or secede and become a separate country — has gone surprisingly smoothly, but tensions in Abyei are high, and violent battles have already begun that could cause another civil war to break out.

Accounts of the attacks, which occurred early in January around 10 miles northwest of Abyei, near a village of the Ngok Dinka people, diverge widely, but it is accepted that more than 50 people, including 20 police officers, were killed and 33 others wounded while defending an outpost attacked by armed Misseriya herders and assorted Khartoum-backed militia fighters.

For their part, Misseriya elders claim that the police fired on them, and that the herders were simply defending themselves.

Abyei, an area of about 10,460 square kilometers, is home to the Ngok Dinka, a tribe with a strong southern identity and a history of joining forces with the south during the most recent civil war. This town is also the frequent home to, and long-time grazing grounds for, the nomadic Misseriya tribe, which strongly identifies with the north. The two tribes have shared this land for centuries, and battled for years for control of the region. The Ngok Dinka tribe thinks Abyei belongs in the south, while the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe sees it as northern. The heart of their dispute is about grazing rights for cattle, which are central to both communities' traditions and economies.

Almost all men in Abyei wear Arab-style ceremonial dress and even natty white Muslim prayer caps, but not all are Muslim. The Misseriya see Abyei as a special place, a rich pastureland to graze their cattle during the dry season, which they have been doing since time immemorial. The biggest waterway here, known in the south as the Kiir River, is so vital to the Misseriya that they have put down claim to it, calling it Bahr al-Arab, or River of the Arabs.

The fierce fighting started amid charges by the pro-northern Misseriya that they were being blocked from bringing their cattle to water sources in the area and claims by the Ngok Dinka, who consider themselves southerners, that the Misseriya planned to drive them out of the area.

The Misseriya say they lost 20 dead in clashes with the pro-southern Dinka during the past weeks. The Dinka said they had lost between 24 and 30 from January 14 to 16 in the latest fighting over the disputed district.

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement accused President Omar al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of being behind the clashes. Arab news.com published a press statement by Edward Leno, a member of the political bureau of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which said, "Al-Bashir's regime is pushing the southern government for a war but they will not get it," adding that Bashir's government cannot deny its involvement since the southern government has captured mercenaries, funded and armed by Khartoum, involved in Abyei clashes.

But the fighting may have more local roots. A northerner who is Missiriya, Albaqir Dahir, told The New American that the rich pastureland, Abyei, is for northern people, not for the southern: “I can’t allow this black people, southerners, to take this land even if they vote for separation or not.” He added that if the southerners vote to secede (which is virtually certain), war will restart.

Miyen Alor Kuol, a member of the SPLM in Abyei, told the Sudan Tribune that armed Misseriya had gathered and put up several road blocks along the highly contested border leading to south Sudan early on January 11.

Kuol said he saw gatherings of up to 30 people carrying hand-held grenades and Kalashnikovs, adding:

The Misseriya will never accept a peaceful dialogue. They are always like that. They call for peace when they are in weak position and renege it when they are in strong position.

Now they have again started laying blocks on roads which were agreed to be opened for passage of the internally displaced persons returning home from Khartoum.

You see, we were this morning [January 20] going to Maker Abior ... for a visit. As [we] were coming back, we saw a gathering of about 400 people at Goli and as [we] were about to reach them, local people stopped our vehicles and told us not to go any further saying armed Misseriya have laid road blocks in Goli.

Now the question is, What is the likelihood of violence? Could another civil war break out, displacing people?

Some resolutions have been initiated, but they did not stop the clashes in Abyei. Among them is the 2004 draft agreement, the Abyei Conflict Resolution Protocol. “Article 1.1 of the Protocol states: "(1) Abyei is a bridge between the north and south, linking the people of Sudan; (2) the territory of Abyei is defined as the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905; and (3) the Misseriya and other nomadic peoples retain their traditional rights to graze cattle and move across the territory of Abyei.”

Also, the second post-apartheid President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, has brokered a deal between the Arab and African groups involved in the deadly clashes. The deal was reached after two days of talks on January 14. The agreement has three main points:

  • Blood money will be provided for all the people killed in clashes during the past year.
  • The Misseriya agreed to provide security on the roads used by southerners returning to the south.
  • The Misseriya will be allowed to travel on their migratory routes south in 15 days' time, if certain conditions are met.

The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement, signed between the then-military regime of Jaafar Nimeri and southern rebel movements, had a clause providing for a referendum allowing Abyei to decide to remain in the North or join the South.

The Agreement, which ended the first Anyanya war, included a clause for a referendum to allow “any other areas that were culturally and geographically a part of the Southern Complex,” including Abyei, to choose between remaining in the north or joining the new autonomous southern region. The referendum was never held, and attacks against the Dinka continued throughout the 1970s.

A vote in Abyei to choose whether it wants unity with the north or south was also part of the 2005 accord and was due to coincide with the independence referendum. But polling there was postponed indefinitely after neither side was able to agree on who should be eligible to participate.

Speaking to Al-Arabiya News Channel, Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, blamed past Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri, who was ousted 1985, for the country’s continuing strife, saying he broke a peace agreement so that he could Islamicize Southern Sudan.

We wouldn’t have reached what we witnessed in the south of Sudan, had the late President Jaafar Nimeiri honored the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement for autonomy he signed with the southern rebels, which put an end to 17 years of fighting. It can be said that Nimeiri later took the path that enhances divergences between the north and the south of Sudan.

Four years later, I went to cover the general conference of the Sudanese Socialist Union (the ruling party at the time). Nimeiri spoke at the conference, stressing Sudan’s Arabism and assuring his determination to Islamicize legislation in his country. A female delegate from the South suddenly stood up and told the president in English: “You are stressing on Arabism and Islam, so what would be the position of a Sudanese woman like me, who is neither Arab nor Muslim?” In September 1983, Nimeiri announced the implementation of the Islamic Shari’a and violated the Addis Ababa agreement regarding the divisions in the southern region, and war was reignited there.

Sudanese civil war has displaced more than four million southerners. Some fled into southern cities, such as Juba; others trekked as far north as Khartoum and even into Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, and other neighboring countries. In May 2008, 60,000 people fled during and after fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the politically disputed town of Abyei, in which SAF and SAF-supported militia also deliberately killed civilians and carried out massive looting and destruction of the town. More than half the homes in Abyei were burned to the ground and the market was completely destroyed. The parties reached an agreement to restore security on June 7, but have been slow to implement it.

Abdullah El-Shaffi, Sudan conflict analyst, told the The New American, “Both North and South Sudan claimed Abyei as their own land, on the north-south fault line. Northern Arab herdsmen have long been at odds with the Dinka Ngok people, who claim that international court rulings and peace deals meant to protect their ancestral rights to this land have been repeatedly dishonored.”

Leaders are attempting to negotiate a compromise that might lead to a deal on grazing and water rights, and economic benefits for the North, in return for abandoning its designs on territory now roamed by tribesmen. El-Shaffi added, “From 2003 Abyei contributed more than one quarter of Sudan’s total crude oil output. Production volumes have since declined and reports suggest that Abyei’s reserves are nearing depletion. Once the South/North Sudan independence referendum is complete, this won't be the end of all the headaches. Southern Sudan has 80 percent of the country's oil which is piped to refineries in the north for transport to foreign buyers.”

Photo: Aerial view of Abyei