South Sudan Watch #4: Simmering Ethnic Tensions Ahead of Referrendum in Abyei

“The president of Sudan, he doesn’t need the people. He only needs what he can take,” said Chief Nyol Jeffur Alor, one of the leaders of the Ngok Dinka people of Abyei—the contested zone straddling Sudan’s North-South border that has often become a battleground where the political interests of NCP and SPLM and their respective armies have played out with brutal consequences for the people on the ground.“He’s taken enough, we should get the rest.”

The chief is talking about the Abyei referendum, which will give the people of this place the chance to vote to decide their fate. Regardless of the outcome of the separate southern referendum which will take place on the same day, Abyei residents will choose either to join the North or join the South, and thus to be administered under those respective governments.

The Ngok Dinka people I spoke with in the Abyei area voiced an overwhelming intent to vote to join the South, saying that the southerners are their brothers and that they do not trust the Khartoum government to treat them as equal citizens. However, I was unable to hear another important side of the story: that of the Misseriya people, the herders that seasonally migrate through the area and who have “secondary rights” to the territory (which were affirmed by an international court ruling related to Abyei’s contested boundaries in July 2009).

The Misseriya have migrated back north for the duration of the rainy season, which is underway now and lasts until October or November, when they will travel south again with their cattle in search of green pasture. Due to security concerns and inaccessibility due to heavy rains, I was not able to travel to areas populated by Misseriya during the rainy season.

All I can say is that mistrust, suspicion, and general anger between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya populations at the local level is very high; when I asked a group of youth leaders who had gathered to tell me and my researcher colleague about their concerns for their future, I asked if they had any Misseriya friends, since the same groups of herders and their families have moved south year after year past their villages. The room broke out into laughter and the words “of course not!” echoed through it. The hardened relations between these communities at a local level is intensified by political tensions at the highest levels of Sudan’s northern and southern governments. If Khartoum and Juba don’t take the initiative to address the situation in Abyei before it is too late—the parties can start by getting preparations for the Abyei referendum off the ground—their people will once again bear the brunt of the consequences for this failure.