Abyei: At the Centre of a Difficult Divorce in Sudan

By Njoki Wamai

As South Sudan meets its date with history on 9 July, the battle over Abyei, the disputed town at the border of Sudan and Southern Sudan, threatens to scuttle the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005. South Kordofan, another border area, has also registered conflict and citizen displacement recently, thereby increasing the anticipation of the historic independence of South Sudan on 9 July. Abyei, the epicenter of the painful divorce, flared up on 21 May 2011 with an estimated 50,000 residents fleeing the border town after a Khartoum government-supported army attacked the Dinka Ngok residents while facilitating an influx of the nomadic Misseriya into the area. This was the North’s bid to change the demographics of the town before the Abyei referendum and 9 July 2011 split, according to UN field reports. The invasion has been likened to the earlier janjaweed invasion sponsored by the Khartoum government in the Darfur region.

An agreement to withdraw rival forces ahead of the independence date has been mediated by the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki. A 20 km buffer zone has been created to be monitored by international observers and peacekeepers. Initially, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and the UN Security Council had called on President Omar al-Bashir to withdraw the army in Abyei, though al-Bashir denied responsibility for the armed forces.The contestation of Abyei and the conflict in Southern Kordofan raises fears of a return to greater conflict in the Sudan region, despite the definitive referendum in January 2011, which gave independence to the South. Sudan’s previous two-decade-long conflict (a civil war between the North and South) killed an estimated two million people and displaced 4,5 million.

Despite the probable effects of the Mbeki mediated agreement in improving relations between the North and South, the increasingly symbolic Abyei regionwill continue to be problematic even after 9 July, according to analysts.  The region has being compared to other disputed territories such as Kashmir and Jerusalem. But why is Abyei problematic?

First, the unfinished business of Abyei’s referendum is one of the factors. Abyei is challenging because both the North and the South lay a historical claim to it. The South claims the region through the Dinka Ngok community that has been residing there for ages.  Abyei was transfered into Kordofan, on the Northern side of the North-South border, in 1905 by British colonial administrators. It later became a battle ground during the second Sudanese civil war. Since 1905, when the Dinka Ngok (originally of the South) were initially incorporated into the Northern administration, they have been constantly discriminated against because the North claims ownership of the region through a different group – the Misseriya pastoralists – who have also been grazing cattle in Abyei. The Khartoum government claims the South should respect colonial boundaries and give Abyei to the North.

The difficulty of the situation is evident from the CPA’s exemption of Abyei and in promising a plebiscite of its own which is has not been held to date. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) from Southern Sudan supports only the participation of the Dinka Ngok and other groups while excluding the Khartoum-supported Misseriya in the vote determining Abyei’s fate on whether it will remain with the North or join South Sudan.

The second factor is the strategic importance of Abyei. The ethnically mixed, oil-rich and well-watered Abyei region is the epicenter where all political challenges manifest themselves clearly. The region produces 85 per centof Sudan’s oil. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), a 50/50 oil sharing agreement was reached at Naivasha. The South depends on oil sales for 98 per cent of its revenue, and the North has all of the pipelines, refineries and the seaports. In other words, this presents a serious threat to the survival of both states if they do not cooperate.  In addition to oil, the region has fertile land for cultivating and pastures for grazing animals, making the region attractive to both Dinka Ngok farmers and Misseriya nomads.

The third complication is the issue of citizenship in Abyei and in Sudan as well as Southern Sudan. Since the referendum, the issue of citizenship has been a headache for officials from the North and from South Sudan. An estimated 1,5 million Southerners live in the North. Most of them left the South during the civil war, in search of better education and economic opportunities, but now have minimal attachment to the South. Yet a smaller population of Northerners lives in the South, searching for better economic opportunities there. Both governments have yet to clearly spell out how to handle citizenship, which could become a divisive issue if mishandled.

The best representation of Abyei’s citizenship challenges is depicted by the status of the Misseriya. The Misseriya live in Abyei only a few months during the year due to their nomadic lifestyle, and they live in Sudan during the rest of the year. Abyei’s referendum to determine which country will acquire the territory will be critical – and perhaps conflict-producing – for both the Dinka Ngok and Misseriya peoples.

Bronwen Manby, a human rights law expert from Open Society advises against establishing citizenship based on ethnicity between the North and South. She argues that Cote d’Ivoire has faced intermittent crises due to establishing citizenship based on ethnicity. Conversely, Senegal has reaped the benefits of inclusive citizenship. She argues for Sudan to implement the International Law Commission’s standards for establishing citizenship, which provide for citizenship based on choice and connections to territory. This includes “a person’s primary residence taking into consideration appropriate connections as such birth, marriage and previous residence”.

In conclusion, the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Abyei and South Kordofan will impact future relations between the two Sudanese states. This exposes a need for the African Union, the regional Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and the international community to support a peaceful transition that will enable citizenship determination and nation-building processes to flourish in both Sudan and South Sudan. 


6 July 2011


Related Article:

Luis Miguel Bueno Padilla, So South Sudan Is Born, Now What?