Abyei, Sudan's Potential Tinderbox

Image by Rebecca Hamilton. Sudan, 2010.

IN ABYEI, SUDAN Southern Sudan brimmed with optimism after a largely peaceful referendum this month that almost certainly will lead to the creation of a new nation. But in the contested border town of Abyei, the mood was somber.

In a mud-walled hut, Achol Deng Ngok stacked layers of kissera, a sorghum pancake, she had prepared to send to men north of town. Two weeks ago, clashes in the area left at least 36 people dead.

"We are scared, that's why we're sending our men food - so they stay in the villages north of here to protect us," she said.

But Ngok said she has an even bigger fear: "We don't want to be left behind when the south gets its independence."

That fear is pushing the Ngok Dinka, the town's dominant ethnic group, to consider declaring Abyei part of the south, even though they know that move might provoke the north to try to take Abyei by force.

Sudan's predominantly Muslim and Arab north and the largely Christian and animist south fought a 22-year war that led to the deaths of 2 million people. If Abyei's status is left unresolved, the area will be caught between two nations, possibly triggering a return to conflict in Sudan.

A 2005 peace agreement, which ended the war, promised the people of Abyei their own referendum on whether to be part of the north or south. The Abyei referendum was supposed to be held simultaneously with the main southern referendum, but the two sides failed to agree on who was eligible to vote.

Results of the main referendum are expected next month, but the Abyei referendum has been postponed indefinitely.

"If Abyei remains unresolved and the south secedes," said Jon Temin, director of Sudan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, "the people of Abyei will be left in a very ambiguous and vulnerable position."

The agreement that ended the first Sudanese civil war in 1972 gave people here the opportunity to claim Abyei as a southern area, reversing a decree made during British colonial rule that had put it under northern administration.

But after oil was discovered in Abyei, the Sudanese government refused to let the referendum go forward.

This time, the Ngok Dinka have decided to issue their own declaration.

"We want to be clear that Abyei is part of the south and we want to belong to the south," said Kuol Deng Kuol, paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka.

Nomadic grazing

While the Ngok Dinka say Abyei belongs to the south, another group is equally adamant that it belongs to the north.

Each year the Misseriya, a northern nomadic group, migrate southward to graze their cattle near a river south of Abyei. The River Kiir, as the Ngok Dinka call it, or Bahr al-Arab, as the Misseriya term it, is a lifeline during the harsh dry season.

Historically, the two groups managed a relatively peaceful coexistence. But during the war years, that relationship frayed as governments in Khartoum armed the Misseriya to fight against the southern population.

The 2005 peace agreement promised the Misseriya continued grazing rights in Abyei regardless of whether the land ended up in the north or the south. The Ngok Dinka say they support that provision.

But in a phone interview, Misseriya leader Sadig Babo Nimir said grazing rights will mean nothing if Abyei goes to the south.

If the Ngok Dinka want to go to the south, he said, "let them go with pleasure. If they want to stay, let them stay with pleasure. But the land is part of the north."

These conflicting views are reflected at the national level, partly due to rumors about oil. While the one remaining oilfield in Abyei is in decline, U.S. oil exploration here in the early 1980s still prompts speculation that there are untapped reserves.

On the southern side, the secretary general of the ruling party, the Southern People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, has said that if the Abyei referendum is not conducted, the only remaining option is for Abyei to be transferred to the south by presidential decree. On the northern side, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said he will not accept Abyei being part of the south.

The Ngok Dinka say they fear that if they do not make their declaration before the votes are counted in the southern referendum, they will miss their chance to join the south.

"There is still time to find a political solution if President Bashir wishes to do so," said Rou Manyiel, chairman of civil society organizations in Abyei.

But with the referendum commission expected to announce the results by Feb. 14 at the latest, the clock is ticking.

The Ngok Dinka were ready to make their declaration before voting started on Jan. 9. But at the last minute, two high-level officials from the SPLM persuaded them to hold off.

The officials said a declaration before the referendum would give the north "an excuse to disrupt" the vote, said Juac Agok, deputy chairman of the SPLM in Abyei.

The SPLM is now asking them to wait until after July 9, when southern independence would formally begin.

But Agok said, "I don't think it will be possible for me to convince the people of Abyei to wait."

Peacekeeping challenge

Politicians in both north and south have accused each other of sending troops to the area around Abyei. Experts worry that violence in the contested borderland would be difficult to rein in.

"If unresolved, Abyei will continue to be a source of instability, risking broader escalation," said Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In a report to the U.N. Security Council last week, the U.N. special representative on Sudan, Haile Menkerios, said both sides had restricted the ability of peacekeepers to patrol Abyei.

Limited access to the region makes it difficult to verify what is taking place in the border region. But a recent study by the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey said that Khartoum has been trying to recruit Misseriya nomads into proxy militia just north of Abyei and has been building up heavy artillery.

As they discuss making their declaration, the Ngok Dinka leaders are preparing their people for the possibility of a Khartoum-backed attempt by the Misseriya to take Abyei.

"We are appealing to all the sons of Abyei to be aware of this, and telling them they should defend their family and property," said Kuol, the Ngok Dinka chief.

Misseriya leader Nimir denied that the group has any plan for a takeover, and said that far from feeling supported by Bashir, the Misseriya feel betrayed by the government for having agreed to an Abyei referendum in the first place.

But Nimir also said that if the Ngok Dinka declare that Abyei belongs to the south, "then we will defend our land by force."