Sudan referendum fuels tension in key border town of Abyei

Ethnic tensions rise as large numbers of displaced Ngok Dinka return to Abyei ahead of the historic Jan. 9 Sudan referendum.

By , Guest blogger

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    Students from the southern Abyei oil region demonstrate outside the South Sudan coordinator office against the delays of the Abyei referendum in Khartoum on Nov. 4, 2010.
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On Jan. 9, Sudan will hold a referendum on the question of Southern secession. Abyei, an oil-rich district situated near the border of North and South Sudan, is supposed to hold its own referendum on the same day:

Voters will be asked to decide whether to retain Abyei’s special administrative status in the north or become part of Southern Sudan, irrespective of the outcome of the south’s own referendum on secession. The result of the referendum will be determined by a simple majority of votes cast.

Due to a breakdown in North-South negotiations over logistics in Abyei, Abyei’s referendum may not happen on time. Many observers are watching closely to see whether Abyei will resolve its problems peacefully or, in the worst case scenario, become ground zero for a new Sudanese civil war. Given ethnic tensions in Abyei, North-South tensions in Sudan as a whole and especially in the border regions, and the importance of oil for the economies of both North and South, what happens in Abyei has tremendous importance for the future of the country/ies.

Let’s look at the situation more closely.

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Despite the fact that Abyei’s referendum might not take place as scheduled, the approach of the referendum date is worsening the district’s interlocking problems. An IRIN headline says that Abyei is “bracing for a ‘bad Christmas’”:

The delay has raised tensions between the Ngok Dinka community, the majority of Abyei’s permanent residents, who mainly supported the South during the 1983-2005 war, and Misseriya pastoralists, who bring their livestock into the region to graze during the annual January-to-May dry season. The North armed many Misseriya as proxy militias during the war. “Large numbers of armed, unemployed youth allied neither to [Khartoum nor Juba, the Southern capital] present a serious security threat as tensions deepen in the countdown to the referendum,” the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey warned in a recent update on Abyei.

The pre-referendum political environment in Abyei was tense, but it’s getting tenser. Now “tens of thousands of people” are returning to Abyei after two decades of displacement due to Sudan’s civil war. In a trend that makes Misseriya Arabs uneasy, “the vast majority of the returnees are Ngok Dinka.” Political rivalries between the two ethnic groups have both local and national ramifications, because on each side there are those who see their enemies as proxies for Northern or Southern interests.

For generations, the Ngok Dinka have allowed thousands of Misseriya Humr nomads from the north to bring their cattle down to Abyei to graze during the dry season. Fearing they could lose these pastures if Abyei secedes along with the South, Misseriya leaders, backed by the government in Khartoum, have threatened war if their people are not allowed to vote in the referendum.

Abyei’s chief administrator, Deng Arop Kuol, says the Ngok Dinka will not accept any deal that gives Misseriya nomads the right to vote. He says Khartoum is stirring up the Misseriya people in an effort to destabilize the region and to keep Abyei firmly under its control.

Fear that hostilities might break out, Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall says, is paralyzing the political process in Abyei:

No single person in the flashpoint region of Abyei has registered yet for the other referendum on the future of that region.

Abyei remain[s] in limbo. Negotiations between north and south leaderships about solutions are leading nowhere so far.

The issue of who will control Abyei’s oil, Vall continues, makes the situation even more explosive.

On Sunday, the tension, anger, and rivalry in Abyei reached new heights as Misseriya Arabs announced the formation of their own local government:

“Our people on the ground announced a new government in reaction to three measures taken by the Abyei’s top administrator,” the Misseriya tribe’s emir Mukhtar Babo Nimr told AFP.

“He nominated a new commissioner without consulting anyone. Then he said he would organise his own referendum. Finally, the Dinka Ngok announced that they would not let the Misseriya return to the Bahr al-Arab” river, he added.

With two local governments and two national governments vying for control of Abyei, confusion could quickly lead to problems and further disputes.

No one wants to be Chicken Little on Sudan. It is possible that the referendum (or referenda) will come and go without major bloodshed. But many are sounding alarms over the situation in Abyei. To name one more example, “Sudan Special Adviser at the global think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) and the African Union (AU), Fouad Hikmat, has warned that the perpetuation of the current stalemate between north and south Sudan over the future of the oil-producing area of Abyei could reignite war if not resolved.” Abyei seems to have all the ingredients – ethnic, political, economic, administrative, demographic, sociological – for conflict. As the world watches Sudan prepare for its referendum, a lot of people are watching Abyei, uneasily.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University. He blogs at Sahel Blog and you can follow him on Twitter at @sahelblog.

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