Sudanese tribesmen denied vote threaten a return to bloody past

The Times of London
Abyei, Sudan

Many residents of Abyei spoke of their disappointment at being ‘left behind’ as the south prepared for independence (Jack Hill for The Times)

Sudan’s disputed region of Abyei is threatening to declare allegiance to the south, raising fears of a return to war as the country prepares to split in two.

Preliminary results from Southern Sudan’s week-long referendum on independence showed an overwhelming vote to split from the north yesterday. The poll was the culmination of a peace deal in 2005 that ended 22 years of civil war. But a parallel vote on whether Abyei would become part of the north or south was postponed indefinitely after failure to agree on who was eligible to vote.

The fertile, oil-producing area in Sudan’s middle belt is claimed by the southern Ngok Dinka and the northern Misseriya tribes. Both have the backing of their politicians and armies.

“The right to participate in the referendum has been denied to our people by President Omar al-Bashir,” said Rou Manyiel, a Ngok Dinka community leader. “But self-determination is not only through referendum, it can be done through declaration.”

Khartoum has said it will not allow Abyei to go, but local officials aligned with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), said they were tired of waiting. “If talks fail, then we as a community will decide,” warned John Ajang, the Secretary-General. “The people of Abyei feel angry.”

In the days before this month’s referendum the anger turned to violence when southern police clashed with armed Misseriya tribesmen eight miles outside town. Perhaps as many as 75 people died in three days of gunfights in the hot, dry forests north of Abyei.

Neither Mr al-Bashir in the north nor his southern counterpart Salva Kiir have shown much willingness to compromise, making Abyei a dangerous flashpoint in a country that has known more conflict than peace since independence, and where mistrust between the Arab Muslim north and mostly Christian African south runs deep.

During the rainy season Abyei is cool and green, but at this time of year it is a dry, scorched wasteland dominated by a fortified United Nations base. The dispute has reached a height partly because of the referendum and partly because of the season: at this time of year Misseriya nomads migrate through Abyei with their herds in search of grazing, often leading to clashes with the Ngok Dinka who live here.

Ngok Dinka residents say that the nomads do not live in Abyei so have no right to choose its future. “If you look for Misseriya tukuls [huts] here in Abyei you will not find one of them,” Mr Ajang said. Many spoke of their disappointment at being “left behind” as the south prepares for independence.

“How can I express our feeling? It is deep sorrow. This is a dark time,” said Kuol Deng Kuol, chief of the Ngok Dinka. Others are angry with an international community they feel has abandoned them despite legal rulings — ignored by Khartoum — that say Abyei should choose its own destiny.

Abyei market
Elders gather round for a chat and some sheesha smoking (Jack Hill for The Times)

Drinking tea in the market where armed police patrolled near by, Kout Ajak, 64, a farmer, looked despondent. “Why is Bashir stronger than the international community?” he asked.

Dozens of elders said they belonged in the south. “All of us speak Dinka, we are marked with Dinka scars,” said Kuol Deng Maluak, pointing to the parallel lines that marked their foreheads. “The north does not want us, they want our land.” They would protect their claim with guns but hoped it would not come to that. These and other voices of reason may yet prevail. After meeting Mr Kuol, one Misseriya leader told The Times: “Politics have messed up our relations with the Ngok Dinka.”

“Historically we came here as neighbours, peacefully,” said Mogadum Hamid. “But those who are political took our issues and use them to benefit themselves. The problem is at the political level, not between the people.”

Removing the politics over Abyei’s status, the competing claims to its oil and land, is easier said than done.