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Abyei – Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part II)

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Abyei – Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part II)

Posted by Enough Team on September 14, 2010

Abyei – Sudan’s Other Referendum (Part II)

Fear and anger abound in Abyei

The people of Abyei have not been silent about their concerns: each month they hold substantial, peaceful demonstrations to demand the formation of the Abyei Referendum Commission and to demand the demarcation of Abyei’s borders as determined by the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal. Unfortunately they haven’t found much of an audience for their concerns. Abyei and its unique situation in Sudan are not well-understood by the outside world. Over the years comparatively few international visitors have reached the region; those who do visit briefly seldom return, although this pattern has improved somewhat during the last year.

Because President Bashir rejected the report of the Abyei Boundaries Commission in mid-2005, he never directed the creation of a local government and budget as required by the Protocol. For most of the time since then, Abyei residents – though they inhabit a region rich in oil – have suffered from seriously handicapped governance, receiving few government services for years. They have endured “misery after misery,” as the chief administrator of Abyei put it. Former Abyei residents who were refugees and displaced people in the diaspora found it very difficult to return home.

Security threats in Abyei abound. Reading the minutes of meetings between the Abyei Administration and U.N. Agencies (e.g. those of December 13, 2009) obliges the reader to face a litany of security issues: There are problems with secure access to Abyei, rendering people displaced from Abyei to the North unable to return home. There is still considerable disagreement among the parties on ceasefire boundaries. Joint Integrated Units/Joint Integrated Police Units – units made up of both northern and southern forces – were never well-integrated and have themselves become a principal source of insecurity. Reportedly, 3,000 well-armed Misseriya (a northern nomadic group) in military uniform are standing by just west of Abyei. In addition, six battalions of the North’s army, including those that destroyed most of Abyei in May 2008, are stationed just north of Abyei, disputing with Misseriya over bringing weapons into Abyei while on migration. The politicization and militarization of the seasonal movements of Arab nomads has become a wider pattern in the region.

Historically, Khartoum-directed radical Misseriya were a major component of the so-called Murahaleen who in the mid-1980s were perpetrators of large-scale slave-raiding in the South and “depopulated swathes of territory…, killing tens of thousands of people and leading to the destruction and displacement of unknown numbers of others.” How do Abyei’s people, especially families, live in such an environment?

Abyei’s tensions and violence are engineered by Khartoum entirely for Khartoum’s benefit. The principal reality is that the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya will remain neighbors as long as the two groups survive, no matter the results of the two upcoming referenda. Another reality is that the Misseriya desperately need a neighborly partnership far more than do the Ngok. The pastoralist Misseriya have genuinely serious livelihood problems and need Abyei’s water and pasture annually. Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, which has done little to actually relieve or resolve these Misseriya issues, exploits the Misseriya regarding Abyei for Khartoum’s own benefit (e.g. oil and the struggle with the South). President Bashir leading the Misseriya to violence has had no corresponding provocation on the part of the Ngok or the SPLM. Despite the conflict, the SPLM Abyei leadership tone can be quite different:

We will continue to inject positive factors into our relationships with our neighbors. Precisely, poverty and underdevelopment are our common denominator. The overture to our neighbors will be in promoting common and real interests as factors governing relationships. New and positive realities might be the outcome. If we can foster such qualitative shifts to the nature of relationships between people, coupled with comprehensive economic projects, we are sure to attain real change of attitude and ways of thinking. Likewise, it will be possible to avert regular forms of conflicts that plague this region. [From a statement by the chief administrator before the Abyei Area Legislative Council, June 10, 2010]

It is very clear that Khartoum chose not to implement the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal’s decision because the NCP has no intention of allowing a free and fair Abyei referendum, despite agreeing to the CPA’s Abyei Protocol in 2004. It is a strategy that the NCP has used repeatedly to get its way while the international diplomatic corps and American special envoys never seem to catch on. In the last year the NCP’s actions to abort a true referendum in Abyei have accelerated. The two principal actions include (1) inducing significant numbers of Misseriya to move into Abyei with the intention of claiming to be permanent residents eligible to vote and (2) inhibiting the formation and proper functioning of the Abyei Referendum Commission, or ARC.

Misseriya Settlers Come to Town

Khartoum and the Misseriya militants are seeking to rapidly create a ‘new reality’ on the ground in Abyei, in an attempt to redefine the electorate that would participate in the Abyei referendum. Sub-section 6.1 of the CPA’s Abyei Protocol provides:

1.1.2 The territory (Abyei) is defined as the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905; (…)

6.1 The residents of Abyei Area shall: (a) The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area; (b) The criteria of residence shall be worked out by the Abyei Referendum Commission.   

Over time, this language has engendered significant debate regarding the meaning of these provisions as they relate to ethnicity, residents, territory and what was “transferred.”  In 2004 when the Protocol was signed, the understanding of this language was that those who would vote in the Abyei referendum were Ngok Dinka and the comparatively few Misseriya and other Sudanese who physically reside in Abyei.

What is now occurring is a fundamental corruption of the Protocol. Almost all of Sudan’s Misseriya are nomads who live outside Abyei but migrate annually with their herds to Abyei and parts of South Sudan for water and pasture. The SPLM and GOSS have firmly committed, regardless of the outcome of both the South’s referendum and the Abyei referendum, that the Misseriya will continue to have access to that water and pasture. The only modification to this access is that the migrating Misseriya not bring weapons into its area, a change with which the Misseriya refuse to comply.

What is happening now, however, is that a substantial influx of Misseriya is entering into northern Abyei, asserting their intention to be permanently settled in Abyei and therefore eligible to vote in the Abyei referendum, if the Abyei Referendum Commission so decides. According to multiple sources, a large number of people (some 23,000, mostly Misseriya) in North Abyei voted in the April 2010 national elections. In South Abyei, some 24,000, mostly Ngok Dinka, voted. Abyei’s chief administrator reports he believes as many as 75,000 Misseriya ‘residents’ – some already in northern Abyei and some en route – will be seeking to vote in the Abyei referendum, a substantial number given that much of the Ngok Dinka population remains outside Abyei, dispersed as refugees and internally displaced people. Seventy-five thousand is a significant number in terms of contesting the outcome of the Abyei referendum. As Deng Arop said, “If the (Khartoum) government is not supporting this, then they should take action to stop it.” According to him, “the aim is … at the very least to influence the (Abyei) Referendum with large numbers or, if they are told they don’t have the right to vote, then they will derail the Referendum.” Others believe that this is a matter that Khartoum is purposefully keeping on ‘high boil’ to use as leverage in negotiations with the SPLM on both southern referendum and post-referendum issues.


Roger Winter has authored multiple reports on Sudan’s volatile region of Abyei for the Enough Project. Now, with only four months before the referendum on Abyei is scheduled to be held, he will provide an update on the latest developments on the ground in Abyei in a series of posts for Enough Said. His first post is here.