A brief background of the “illegal” referendum in Abyei

As the Abyei Referendum High Committee proceeds with a referendum vote in Abyei this week, both Khartoum and Juba are up in arms – Khartoum because not only are the Misseriya not voting; the unilateral referendum is being held when the Misseriya are for the most part not even present in Abyei. Juba has distanced itself from the referendum and its outcome because of the lack of support from external actors like the AU that help to legitimize the government there and keep things running smoothly in the capital city. The referendum is a critical issue for both sides because of Abyei’s oil reserves – several wells exist in the region, with a pipeline to Heglig/Panthou currently in operation – and also because nobody in South Sudan wants the Ngok Dinka, a branch of the dominant ethnic group in the country, stranded in North Sudan or forced to migrate down to Twic, where there are already enough problems (especially cattle raiding). North Sudan would also appreciate maintaining the support of the Misseriya, who provide a buffer against potential incursions by South Sudan.

This referendum in many ways is the paragon of conflict between nomads and the state. While the rest of South Sudan voted to secede in January 2011, Abyei did not participate not because Bashir’s National Congress Party and Kiir’s SPLM could not agree on when to hold a referendum for Abyei. October is an ideal month for the Dinka Ngok leadership to go ahead with their one-sided referendum because the Misseriya have shifted northward and the majority of their herds should not even be close to Abyei at this point, given the heavy rains throughout Sudan during the late wet season that have allowed the nomadic pastoralist Misseriya to spread out across Kordofan and Darfur. Furthermore, following the assassination of Kuol Deng Kuol, paramount chief of the Ngok, on May 3, multiple reports showed that Misseriya were reluctant to remain in the region even prior to the beginning of the heavier rains. During the rainy season and months immediately following (June – November, depending on the amount of rainfall in the year), the Ngok make up the majority of Abyei’s population; during the dry season, the Misseriya population in Abyei is about equal to the Ngok population, and maybe a little bigger. So basically, if the referendum is held in October, it is almost guaranteed that Abyei will join South Sudan; but if the referendum is held in January or February, there is a good chance that the majority of Abyei’s population would vote to join Sudan.

The Misseriya are a branch of a group classified by lifestyle as Baggara Arabs (بقارة = cattle keeper) that stretch across the Sahel, migrating during dry seasons southward into the tropical savannas and forests and during wet seasons northward into the generally drier parts of the Sahel. South Sudanese living in the areas of the Bahr al-Kiir watershed (Ngok Dinka occupy a large section) have historically warred with these groups during dry seasons, when the grazing land near the wadis and rivers begins to get congested. During the Sudanese Civil War, Khartoum regularly armed the Misseriya to fight as part of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) against the southern rebels. This increased both animosity and conflict intensity between the Ngok and the Misseriya. As the Ngok seek to hold a unilateral referendum, there is this history and many memories of recent bloodshed hiding behind the curtain.

The Misseriya bring up an issue that South Sudan and Sudan – as well as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya – need urgently to address: namely, the status and legality of migration of pastoralist groups that require cross-border movement in order to maintain their livelihoods. Neither Western nor Eastern conceptions of the modern nation-state provide an adequate model for Sudan and South Sudan to follow, because states are by nature at war with movement that is predicated on unpredictable circumstances (such as environmental conditions). Nomadic movements break down the notion of a population belonging to a state, of a population’s resources as property taxable by a state, and also present huge problems for the state’s regularization of identity (in the form of ID cards with an address), which is closely tied to its notions of territory. (Just think, Americans, how often you provide someone with your address – in most states you need proof of address to obtain an identification card, to purchase a vehicle, to open a bank account, etc.)

In certain areas, states have learned to cope with trans-border nomadic movements, and in some cases even benefitted from cross-border trade. For example, the border areas between Somaliland and Ethiopia are somewhat permeable, allowing pastoralists to trade on both sides. Likewise, cross-border pastoralist movement and trade, even when illegal, has provided benefits for both southern Somalia (especially the Wamo region) and Kenya (see Peter Little’s work on that subject). Unfortunately, the border between Sudan and South Sudan presents an extremely contentious issue because of resources (not only oil, but also minerals in areas like Kafia Kingi) and because of identity politics. Abyei is only one of approximately a dozen areas that are disputed (some larger than others); even if Abyei holds a referendum and is decided upon, the areas on either side of Abyei (Heglig/Panthau to the east, the Bahr al-Kiir area to the west), Kafia Kingi, Jebel Mengeis, Qoz Rom, and sections of the Upper Nile/Blue Nile border, will all require work to solve.

At the bottom, any referendum, whenever it is held, is only a first step for Abyei, not a final determination of who belongs and who doesn’t. If it is seen as a way to keep the Misseriya out, Abyei is promised a protracted dispute and continuous insecurity along its border, which will hamper efforts to extract petroleum. Likewise, if Sudan seeks to force the resident Ngok Dinka from their farms and pastures, it will face a similar problem. In a part of the world in which livelihoods continue to be largely determined by environmental patterns and the availability of basic resources like water and grass, the issue of sovereignty is complicated and calls for a rethinking of what constitutes state territoriality, citizenship, and rights of movement.

What are your thoughts?