By Timothy C. May
October 1, 2013 - The gate into the town of Abyei, located on the contested border between Sudan and South Sudan, is raised. An Ethiopian peacekeeper sits in the shade of a bunker laced with razor wire. He’s devoid of rifle or helmet. The gate is up and the soldier is relaxed because things are quiet. To one side, someone has erected a sign that reads “Peace For All.” On the other side is a traffic directive, a caveat, a qualifier. It says: “Slow.”
Has peace finally arrived at the muddy gates of Abyei?
What happens next in Abyei, an oil-rich region of Sudan that boasts fertile savannah, cropland and acacia forest, remains one of the knottiest outstanding questions triggered by southern secession. World leaders, including powerful African heads of state, are gathered this week at the 68th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where they will discuss, among many other issues of global importance, how to finalize sustainable peace in Abyei. The African Union Peace and Security Council already met and issued yet another Communique on the topic. Still, there has been no word on when the people of Abyei will be allowed to vote for their future.
As the global power elite posture, tweet, and issue resolutions from New York, 6,000 miles away in the rain-soaked grasslands and sorghum fields of Abyei, the Ngok Dinka believe they know the answer. Next month, they say they will hold the referendum on Abyei that was promised, and for which they have been waiting since 1972, when the first civil war between the Sudans ended. The Ngok Dinka, who fought for the south in both civil wars, are mobilizing to return and vow to hold their own plebiscite whether or not politicians from Juba or Khartoum agree to its legitimacy. Even if it is labeled as meaningless by the international community, the Ngok Dinka of Abyei seem determined to move forward. In the tinderbox atmosphere created by the May murder of the Ngok Dinka’s revered paramount chief Kuol Deng Kuol, it is quite certain that Misseriya, who also claim the land as theirs, will not be included in numbers of any significance in the vote. The Ngok Dinka will hold it unilaterally, they say, because the 2004 Abyei Protocol and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended the second Sudanese civil war, promised them a referendum. They will hold it unilaterally because the vote promised in the 2009 Abyei Referendum Act, scheduled to occur concurrently with the referendum on independence in 2011, was again postponed, sacrificed for the greater good: secession of the whole of South Sudan.
Following a massive displacement in 2011, another year ticked by with no resolution. Abyei’s displaced residents remained in limbo, waiting and hoping for the chance to declare their allegiance while the international community focused on managing the Misseriya migration. In September 2012, the African Union weighed in, through its High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). The AUHIP proposed setting up joint north/south mechanisms for governance and security in Abyei and holding the long awaited referendum by October 2013 for permanent residents, identified clearly as members of the nine Ngok Dinka tribes along with other Sudanese residents. The south approved the plan but the north rejected it; the proposal’s prescribed joint administrative institutions – among them a referendum commission, a legislative council, and security force — were not established.
Twice in the past five years, more than 100,000 Ngok Dinka – caught unawares, outgunned and bombed — were forced to flee for their lives as Sudan Armed Forces invaded, looted and then burned their towns, villages, shops, schools and homes in 2008 and again in 2011. Then in May of this year, a new round of displacements was sparked by the killing of Paramount Chief Kuol, a respected leader and reputed advocate of peace and restraint, along with a peacekeeper from the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, (UNISFA), the 4,000-strong force of Ethiopian peacekeepers responsible for demilitarizing the region. For Ngok Dinka, who claim the attack was orchestrated by the north, Chief Kuol’s murder has become a rallying cry. Fearing reprisals, the few Misseriya still doing business in Abyei Town packed up and headed north after the murder. For many Ngok Dinka, the assassination of their chief, while he was travelling to the northern portion of the Abyei region for the first time in years, sparked resurgent determination to resolve the Abyei question — on their own in October.
October begins this upcoming week.
“We need to have the referendum,” said Deng Chol, a Ngok Dinka shopkeeper in Abyei Town whose sparsely-stocked stall is located in what he hopes is a place of relative security, directly across from the guarded front entrance to the UNISFA compound. “Our community believes in the AU(HIP) proposal. Whatever the outcome, it is called for by the AU and the AU and U.N. will be watching the result.” He added: “If Sudan disagrees, they might attack. Last time they came with heavy artillery. It could happen again.”
Down the road at the Abyei gate, a young boy walks alone past the bunker, wearing overlarge shoes. He sits on a broken post near the “Peace For All” sign to catch his breath before moving on. He is walking slowly. Where is he going?
Timothy C. May is a Field Consultant of the Enough Project, a project of the Center for American Progress to end genocide and crimes against humanity. He is based in Juba, South Sudan.