Oil and Ethnic Fault Lines Make a Combustible Combination in Abyei, Sudan

As Mark and Maggie have discussed, tensions in the border region of Abyei in Sudan are reaching a fever pitch. According to the Small Arms Survey violence has reached the highest levels there since 2008.

Control over Abyei is not just about control over land and oil, although it is about those things as well.  Notably, key oil fields are excluded from the 2009 demarcation by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague; a demarcation that drew back the area’s borders significantly and was agreed to by both north and south.  The demarcation also reduces the number of Missiriya pastoralists within the borders at any given time, having been drawn primarily around the Ngok Dinka jurisdictions.

But the smaller, demarcated Abyei still lies along a Missiriya migration route, where Missiriya communities graze when they herd their cattle south from Muglad for the dry season.  This has traditionally required negotiations and agreements with the semi-pastoral Ngok Dinka communities that live primarily in Abyei and consider themselves southerners.  The political polarization of Ngok Dinka and Missiriya along north-south lines dates back to the first phase of civil war after independence in 1956.

This political orientation has meant that Khartoum has been able to play on local suspicions in order to antagonize southerners.  I have to infer that the government has used the same strategy it has used in Kordofan, Darfur, and the south in Abyei as well—that is, in this case, to convince the Missiriya that the Ngok Dinka are out to get them.  The issue of trust between these two broad communities, and the issues of land use and migration, will have to be resolved before the status of Abyei can be determined peacefully.

The involvement of Khartoum complicates matters, as it appears to use the issue of Missiriya migration to defend its claim to Abyei.  The move last week to take the region militarily is startling and probably indicates that the government is nervous about the fate of the region.  It also indicates the extent to which the government is prepared to respond forcefully at the slightest hint of potential aggression from the south.

Shortly after the north entered Abyei, the Defense Minister in Khartoum said northern troops would not withdraw until a new agreement was reached with South Sudan that would ensure freedom of movement for all Abyei’s citizens, again highlighting the importance of migration in resolving the issue.

The international diplomatic community will have to balance the need to deal with migration as a root cause of conflict, acknowledging the rights of both Missiriya and Ngok Dinka communities, with the need to recognize the possibility of the government manipulating concerns over the issue toward its own ends.