By Luka Biong Deng
March 1, 2013 -The question of whether the Ngok Dinka of Abyei are citizens of South Sudan may seem strange to most people, who would answer it in the affirmative. But it seems a difficult question to a few, particularly among the elite. This ambiguity has reached the government level. Recently, a senior official compared the people of Abyei to those of Kashmir and described them as not citizens of South Sudan in a meeting of one of the highest decision-making institutions.
“The people of Abyei are like people of Kashmir. Kashmir people do not occupy key positions in India and Pakistan. So Abyei people are not South Sudanese and should not occupy key positions in South Sudan,” he said.
This statement was made immediately after the appointment of Gen. Pieng Deng Kuol as the Inspector General of Police, who hails from Abyei. It seems we have a challenge to educate ourselves, not only about the history of our struggle but also about our Constitution as the supreme law of our country. Abyei has been increasingly referred to as Kashmir or even a disputed area. This reference is either meant to show the difficulty in finding a solution to the Abyei issue or it is based on an utter ignorance.
Besides the considerable contribution made by the Ngok Dinka of Abyei in the liberation struggle, the people of Abyei area are culturally part and parcel of the South. Veterans of Bahr el Ghazal Anya Nya Movement, such as Albino Akol, Andrew Makur, John Ukec, Stephen Madut Baak, Kawac Makuei, Salva Kiir and Salva Mathok, would remember the heroic role played by the Ngok Dinka.
Akonon Mathiang, in particular, played a remarkable role. He became a member of the military command of the Anya Nya movement in Bahr el Ghazal, a commander of Gogrial and Tonj and later of Northern Aweil. Akonon was killed in June 1968. He was remembered by his comrades who named one of the wildlife boats after him during the regional government that was formed after the conclusion of Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972.
The people of Abyei also played a crucial role in the formation of Anya Nya II in Bahr el Ghazal, which became a nucleus for the SPLM. Their bravery was recognised by Commander Kerubino Bol, who referred to any brave SPLA soldier as ‘Ma Ngok’. It became a new military vocabulary in the SPLA for defining bravery. One would even say that Abyei area is one of the areas in the South that has the highest number of martyrs in relation to its total population during the second civil war.
When Abyei was invaded by Bashir in May 2011, the people of the South in all the ten states showed their solidarity with the people of Abyei by demonstrating against the invasion and mobilising resources for the displaced. This was a clear sign that the people of South Sudan see the Ngok Dinka of Abyei as their kith and kin. I took upon myself to visit and to thank the churches and commissioners of Kajo Keji, Lanja and Yei counties and Governor of Central Equatoria State for mobilizing contributions from their citizens to support the displaced people of Abyei.
This view about the people in Abyei is well reflected in the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011. Specifically, Article 97 of the Constitution states that: “The members of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms of Abyei Area shall have an inalienable right to enjoy South Sudanese citizenship and nationality and all rights and freedoms guaranteed by this Constitution”.
It is wrong to compare Abyei to Kashmir or to call it a disputed area. The Abyei area is not a disputed area. It was transferred from South Sudan to Sudan in 1905. It was defined as the area of the Ngok Dinka in the Abyei Protocol and delimited (defined on the map) in July 2005 by the Abyei Boundary Commission and four years later by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It was administratively transferred by the colonial administration from Bahr el Gahzal province to Kordofan province in 1905 to protect the Ngok Dinka from slave raids by Arab nomads. Abyei was and is a territory of South Sudan.
For any South Sudanese to describe the Abyei area as a disputed area or Kashmir would be like surrendering part of the territory of the South to Sudan. South Sudan should claim the territory of Abyei regardless of the choice of the people of the area. For example the area of Kafia Kanje and Hofrat el Nahas, where non-South Sudanese are now being settled, is a disputed area but it is clearly part of the territory of the South and it cannot be abandoned. If Southerners are ready to fight for their disputed and claimed areas, what about the Abyei area whose indigenous population are Dinka and who participated greatly in the struggle of the people of South Sudan?
The Abyei issue cannot be compared with the Kashmir conflict. The conflict in Kashmir erupted in 1947 when British rule in India ended with the creation of two nations: India and Pakistan. British control over the 562 Indian states, including Kashmir, ended with each state free to choose whether to join Pakistan or India or to remain independent. Currently, India controls about 43 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan controls about 37 percent and China controls the rest. While the majority of the people of Kashmir are Muslims, the region was ruled by Hindus. In fact, Kashmiri hold senior positions in the national governments of both India and Pakistan as they are considered citizens in the two countries.
India considers the decision of the rulers of Kashmir to join India on October 25, 1947, which was approved by the constituent assembly of Kashmir, was not only a legal act but it was also irrevocable. A UN Security Council resolution, passed in April 1948, called for a cease-fire and the conduct of a plebiscite (referendum) for the people of Kashmir. This resolution was rejected by India. It argued that the demographics of the region had been permanently altered by Pakistan which settled militant Muslims from western Kashmir and Pakistani tribesmen in the area.
Pakistan, on the other hand, rejected the decision of the Hindu rulers to join India, saying they did not represent the majority Muslim population of Kashmir. Pakistan argues that on the basis of the two-nation theory, Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan because it has a Muslim majority. Pakistan supports either a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir or the partitioning of Kashmir. In fact certain groups believe that Kashmir should be independent of both India and Pakistan.
It is clear from this account that the Abyei issue is not similar to the Kashmir conflict. It is undisputable that Abyei is a territory of South Sudan and its people are part of the cultural entity of South Sudan. They are also full citizens of South Sudan according to the Constitution. You may have differences with some individuals from Abyei but it should not amount to abandoning your territory. Abyei does not belong to Deng Alor, Edward Lino, Pieng Deng or myself but it belongs to the South.
It is a paradox that while Khartoum is wrongly claiming Abyei to be within its territory and grants a disgraced citizenship to the Ngok Dinka, some self-interested few individuals in the South shamefully see the people of Abyei as not citizens of South Sudan. Our President and Parliament should more vigorously vet individuals who hold constitutional posts to ensure that they know the basics about our Constitution and the history of our great nation.
Luka Biong Deng is the Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee and is senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). He is currently a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is riginally published by New Nation Newspaper