How a residency dispute in one key town could lead Sudan back to war

Weeks before semiautonomous South Sudan votes on whether to secede from Sudan, people in the flashpoint border town of Abyei are concerned that a residency dispute could reignite a decades-long civil war.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
A displaced family from the south rests in the compound of their shelter in the Mandela Internally Displaced Persons camp in Khartoum on Oct. 21.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Francis Nyok Koryom stands in front of the ruins of his former home in the flashpoint Sudanese town of Abyei. It was just one of thousands destroyed in 2008 as Sudanese government forces rampaged through the strategically important town that straddles the border between northern Sudan and the semiautonomous south, which votes in January whether to secede.

The forces also razed the local market, and almost all the town’s inhabitants fled in what remains the most significant breakdown in the tenuous North-South peace agreed to in 2005. And now the people of Abyei fear more violence – this time potentially leading to a resumption of the decades-long civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.

The ostensible trigger? A political deadlock over the question of who is a resident of Abyei.

Why Abyei is so key

Abyei was one of the frontlines in Sudan’s civil war, fought between the government in the mainly Muslim north and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war granted residents of Abyei the right to self-determination.

On Jan. 9 2011, when southern Sudanese vote in a referendum on whether to become an independent nation, Abyei residents are supposed to vote in a separate referendum on whether they want to be part of the north or south. But less than three months until the vote there is no agreement on who constitutes a resident of Abyei for voting purposes.

A river runs through the residency issue

Abyei, in the border region between northern and southern Sudan, is inhabited year-round by the Ngok Dinka ethnic group. The land here is extremely fertile.

Just south of the town is a river which continues to flow even throughout the harsh dry season, which starts next month. And this river is critical to understanding the local dimensions of the debate over residency.

Each year, nomadic Misseriya Arabs travel down toward the river during the dry season to graze their cattle, before returning north again some six months later when the rains begin.

Traditionally the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya coexisted peacefully. But during the war years, successive governments in Khartoum recruited the Misseriya nomads, arming them to fight as government proxies against the Ngok Dinka, who were aligned with the southern rebels.

Today, the Ngok Dinka fear that if the nomads are counted as residents then the Abyei referendum will come out in favor of the north, placing them under the rule of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, separating them from their southern kin, and making them a target of retaliation by both the Misseriya and the Sudanese government.

The Misseriya nomads fear that if they are not counted as residents then Abyei will go to the south and the seasonal access on which their livelihoods depend will be denied. This fear remains strong, despite promises from the Ngok Dinka, and a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, that Misseriya grazing rights will be upheld regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

“The Misseriya nomads are being misled by the politicians” says Ngok Dinka chief, Kuol Deng Kuol. “They are being told that even though the Hague ruling says it, they won’t get their (grazing) rights.”

US envoy steps up efforts

Earlier this month, US envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, mediated talks in Addis Ababa in an effort to move the referendum process forward.

Abyei Administrator, Deng Arop Kuol, who attended the talks, says that the proposals discussed were unacceptable to the Ngok Dinka.

One proposal was for nomads who had spent at least 200 days in Abyei during each of the past three years to be considered residents of Abyei.

“This 200 days, it could be very nice on the table, but how would you know if someone has been living there for 200 days? There is no monitoring system. This will lead us into chaos” says Mr. Kuol.

Reports of military build-up in the area, combined with the deadlock over residency, do nothing to build confidence in Abyei where the charred remains of homes and market stalls provide daily reminders of recent violence.

“The incident of 2008 has affected the thinking of the Ngok Dinka,” says Chief Kuol, who fears Abyei is heading toward a repeat scenario. Except this time, says Kuol, it would be different because the term of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is coming to a close; the status of Abyei at the time of the Southern Sudan referendum on independence will be permanent. “We know this will be the last time; either they wipe us off our land or we get our rights.”

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