Abyei: Abandoned In Unilateral Referendum

By Martin Garang Aher

October 25, 2013 (SSNA) — Another summit has lately gone by without agreement between the two presidents: Bashir and Kiir, over the future of Abyei. Abyei’s question had tumbled down to a two-man dialogue from both its international and national projection as a deciding region of statehood for South Sudan and possibly Sudan. It is now an issue of table manners for the two heads of states. Since none of the presidents is ready to correct his manners, deadlock continues to rule. What is wrong in the future of Abyei?

Some people in the Republic of Sudan call it the Kashmir of the Sudans by perhaps, inaccurately, contrasting its geographical location, ethnic composition, strategic national security and resources implications and religious affiliation to the region at the foothills of the Himalayas which is controversially administered by three nations: China, India and Pakistan. A very unfortunate comparison indeed! However, judging by the look of insanity involved in the two regions, Abyei could easily and sadly qualify had the decisive dissimilarity not been that of her history. By settlement, Abyei cannot and has never been synonymous in character with Kashmir. The notoriety of claims by Sudan through Messeriya transhumance is the problem of the area.

Abyei is a region claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. It sits perilously on the borders of the two deceptive enemies (South Sudan, to Sudan is the number two enemy state after the state of Israel). It has long been seen along with several other areas as a conflict flashpoint on the North-South borders of the Sudans. Its inhabitants are, according to 2005 Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement, nine Ngok Dinka and others.

Ngok is a Nilotic section of Dinka broadly famous among other Dinka sub-tribes as Ngong Deng Kuol/Majok or Ngong Abyei. Historically, the family of Arop Biong through Kuol Arop and Deng Kuol or Deng Majok and other descendants in the line maintained the chieftaincy of Abyei in what was the volatile part of the last quarter of 19thC and first quarter of 20thC. This period, according to historians with authority on Sudan such as Douglas Johnson, was when the area experienced intense slave raids.

Pragmatically, Sudanese Arabs saw venturing south through Abyei as a mission of advancing Islamization to the rest of Africa by whatever means necessary. Most of the time, it was through aggression: slave raids, trade, accessing resources or cultural conquest. Oral histories along the borders of Sudan and South Sudan bear no wickedness in stating that the coming of Arabs to Sudan has led to embittered relationships of all times. Along the borders, the Jieng, the Naath and the Collo continue to tell vigilante stories due to unforeseen attacks. Security at the borders has always continued to be a blister needing caution even from the depth of sleep. Records reveal that an administrative transfer of Abyei to Kordufan in 1905 was a means to curtail or lessen aggressiveness towards Ngok. Aggression towards Ngok has mostly been engendered by the Messeriya section of Humr; now claimants of nativity by transhumance through Abyei.

Other inhabitants of Abyei are non-Ngok Dinka but those who have lived there for generations. These are the ‘others’ acknowledged in the Machakos protocol on Abyei. Note that ‘others’ is an ogre of malevolence and a significant term of substance in Abyei’s case. The owners of the land, the Ngok Dinka, on own discretion cannot shed off the term even if asked to do so. From ‘others,’ we get the presence of Messeriya Arabs in Abyei who are either historically a welcome group of individual settlers among the population or those who weaved into Ngok communities through intermarriages. If you ask the Ngok Dinka what others in Abyei are, they will precisely point out that so and so over there are the ‘others’ in their region. Ask anyone in Khartoum and the list may include the planes that fly above the region – a deliberate misunderstanding of facts. So, who are the real Messeriya in Abyei? 

From the snapshot above, it should be easy to place Abyei in its rightful place. As the month of October 2013 concludes, sureness and inviolability of life for the natives in Abyei will depend, for better or for worst, on the decision that will be taken by the majority. Indeed, emotions from failures of the AUHIP and UN Security Council have driven the citizens of Abyei and sympathizers in general to feelings of dissatisfaction, uncertainty as well as a bolstered enragement. Why would they not harbor these feelings when daily life in the region is a terrifying ordeal: full of uncertainty, deprived of natural bequest in terms of oil resources, constantly threaten by Messeriya Arabs and for unknown session, held between the two mystical states that would never ever agree on anything without coercion? Successive deliberations and negotiations processes have stalled indefinitely leaving Ngok community as in-betweens of Khartoum and Juba.  It is on these uncertainties that the citizens of Abyei have decided, stealthily perhaps, to hold independent referendum to determine their national status.  

Of course there is a worry. The plebiscite is eclipsed by anecdotal evidence that the Messeriya, armed by the Sudan government and given assurance that they too belong in Abyei, may likely cause bloodbath.  Also, Satellite images from Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) of the Hollywood actor George Clooney and John Prendergast of Enough Project have reported extraordinary Sudanese military activities from their bases closer to Abyei. Sudan has a potted history of taking advantage of precarious situations. The invasion of Abyei in 2010 in which thousands of civilians were displaced serves as evidence. The killing of paramount chief of Abyei, Kuol Deng Kuol, while accompanied by United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) has further exacerbated the resolve to go ahead with the vote.

What is the position of South Sudan in this mess? The vocal push by South Sudanese politicians and notable figures had fuelled the desire for the citizens of Abyei to go forward with voting decision regardless of formal agreement on the matter. One is surprised by South Sudan government reversion in tone and support for the people of Abyei. Whatever eventuality that the people of Abyei may encounter, South Sudan should know that it is part of it. Denial of reality is simply unprincipled and dangerous.

It would have made rational sense if the Sudans resolved Abyei’s self-determination exercise in a manner that reckons responsibility and value of human life. Leaving the inhabitants of Abyei to decide their own fate is indistinguishable from entrenching inter-state animosity between the Sudans and between Abyei and her Messeriya neighbours for eternity.  It is too late now.

In answer to the question of the real Messeriya, consider that every year millions of passengers go through Heathrow Airport in the UK on their way to greener pastures anywhere in the world. If by strange happening UK votes to determine her fate, whether to go to Mars or remains on earth, it will be only the Whites indigenous and Chinese or Indian or African ‘others’ permanently based in The UK that will determine UK’s future.  Not millions of Chinese, Indians and Africans that go through Heathrow. Messeriya on maroon cows passing through Abyei are comparable to passengers on an Airbus A380 passing through the UK. It is the transit fee that is needed to be paid.

Martin Garang Aher is a South Sudanese living in Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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