Abyei Ambivalant Even After Referendum - By Matthew Stein & Stephen Bol
Matthew Stein & Stephen Bol
As Sudan's leaders gathered in Khartoum on February 7, 2011 to announce the south's overwhelming vote in favor of succession, the issue of Abyei, a turbulent region at the crossroads of the north and south's disputed border, could not have been very far from their minds.
During the referendum, no matter how peaceful and orderly an image the south tried to project, violence in Abyei kept creeping into the headlines.
Abyei, an oil rich and fertile area comprising of approximately 150,000 people, has long been a source and a battleground for conflict between the north and south. The referendum that had been intended to decide whether Abyei would join the south or remain part of the north was eventually postponed indefinitely after the north and south could not agree on who was entitled to vote.
A day after the south's referendum commenced, perhaps out of frustration or vengeance, the Misseriya, Arab nomads who use the rich land annually for grazing and hoarding, were accused of ambushing busloads of south Sudanese on their way home from the north. One attack left 10 dead and another several days earlier claimed 40. The Misseriya, for their part, blamed the violence on the Dinka-Ngok, a Christian, southern-aligned cattle herding tribe, who dominate the Abyei region.
Tension between the two groups is nothing new and thousands have died on account of feuds over water and land. The region's central waterway, for instance, is claimed by both sides. The southern Dinka-Ngok call it the Kiir River, while the Misseriya refer to it as Bahr al-Arab, or River of the Arabs.
Moreover, throughout Sudan's two decade long civil war, the two tribes have regularly fought with each other on behalf of their respective backers; the Dinka-Ngok aligning themselves with the southern army, and the Misseriya acting as freelance militias on hire for the Khartoum government to clear the way for the more professionally trained Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF).
In May 2008, clashes resulted in the death of 200 individuals--Dinka and Misseriya--and the recent violence, say observers, have the undertones of previous conflicts whereby local police support the Dinka-Ngok and the north arms and trains the Misseriya. The United Nations has also confirmed that large crowds of Misseriya have been seen with machetes, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles amassing north of Abyei.
Most of the Misseriya leaders currently live in either Khartoum or South Kordofan in the north where they can plan, group and operate without having to worry about their own security, while representatives from the SPLM have been known to drop into Abyei town to provide strategic advice to their Dinka-Ngok counterparts.
Today, Abyei looks increasingly like a deserted battlefield. Abyei town is populated only by tukuls, a few churches, a mosque and a UN compound, which dominates all other infrastructure. There is no running water or electricity and the closest place to find the fuel needed to maintain the town's generators is located in Agok, over 90 minutes away.
The main market stretches along an entire section of the city and used to serve as its hub of economic and social activity. Stalls that used to sell all kinds of goods have long shut down as owners have fled the region for safer areas. Some people who no longer have goods to sell or lost their homes have converted their stores into residences, and reside there with their families. There is little food available and whatever can be found has sky-rocketed in price.
Schools remain closed most of the time leaving children either wile away their day sitting idly outside tea shops or playing with rubbish on the street. In some villages, where there aren't enough men, people are arming children and using them as security guards.
As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) the Joint Integrated Unit (JIU), a security formation that includes personnel from both the north and south, was charged with administering security for Abyei. However, according to local residents, the security outfit is doing just the opposite. Shopkeepers accuse the men, some of whom dress in civilian clothes with guns and radio transmitters hanging out of their trousers, of stealing their goods. In remote villages outside town, they are accused of much worse.
In one ghost-like village a woman was found standing outside her compound with a vacant look in her eyes. Behind her two stern-looking soldiers emerged from her house. They were dressed in the same khaki uniforms used JIU. After the soldiers left the shaken woman admitted that similar "visits" by soldiers, especially at night, was becoming increasingly common. Suddenly, in the midst of the conversation, we were approached by several casually dressed officers. They asked for our names, threatened us and told us not to return again to the area.
The people of Abyei say they are tired of this harassment and want to go about daily life without having to worry about aggressive security personnel. People, they say, are no longer able to relax in the market areas, or socialize for long periods in public spaces. They want normality and peace.
In public at least the Khartoum and Juba governments say they are committed to a peaceful solution to the Abyei conflict as well. As the south's day for true independence in July approaches, Abyei is amongst other pressing post-referendum issues such as oil-wealth sharing, security, border demarcation and citizenship that need to be resolved.
However, Abyei could prove the thorniest issue of the lot. During CPA negotiations with the United States in 2005, the north and south's position on the region often proved intractable forcing mediators to create a joint administrative area for Abyei--an administration that was fatally hampered by mistrust on both sides.
Perhaps even more ominous for a peaceful solution is the defiant tone being presented by Dinka-Ngok and Misseriya leaders alike. Leaders on both sides said they were unwilling to make territorial concessions even if that meant living with war. They also echoed each other by saying that they disapprove of how their respective backers are handling the situation.
"We don't care about our leaders in Khartoum," said one Misseriya leader. "They don't know the reality here. We will decide our fate."
The Dinka-Ngok is just as defiant: "Abyei people have also a right to refute the politicians," says Dinka chief Chol Fur Chol. "This is not a time to be sharing land with Misseriya. If the president says to share, we will not be okay."
"We are very frustrated," replies another chief. "We don't know how much longer we can wait. We have given the SPLM the authority to conduct negotiations for us. But we need to see results."
Leaders from the two tribes met in Kadugli, capital of south Kordofan State on January 13 in an attempt to stop the violence in their region. They signed an agreement, followed by another internal agreement observed by the U.N. that stipulated more JIU would be deployed to the area, freedom of migration for the Misseriya to Abyei and further south and security of movement for IDPs returning to Abyei and South Sudan.
However within weeks clashes ensued and Misseriya roadblocks were re-erected. Violence for now appears to be the only understandable language between the two sides.