Remembering Abyei (Part 1)

Abyei has been prominent on my mind since last Friday. On Saturday, I started to write this article. Little did I know that it would be prophetic. Sunday 16 May 2021 was another ominous day for Abyei. Messiriya assailants massacred twelve innocent Ngok Dinka civilians and injured others in Dunguop village, northeast of Abyei town. I extend sincere condolences to the families of the victims and to the Abyei people.

May is an ominous month for Abyei. In May 2008, the Sudan Armed Forces burned down most of the town of Abyei to ashes. Dozens died, and tens of thousands, displaced yet again, sought refugee southward among their kin in southern Sudan. The market was wholly eviscerated, save the mosque, left towering as a symbol that Islamic conversion is a condition for mercy. I remember standing in front of the then Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) party headquarters, nearly a year later, in April 2009 in wonder. The building looked as if some grand steel robotic trampled it underfoot. I was in Abyei with a team accompanying the SPLM’s legal counsel to meet with the Ngok Dinka chiefs and other community delegates in preparation for our trip to the Hague for the Abyei Arbitration Hearing later that month.

I walked the town when not in sessions. Burn markings still on walls and where tukuls once stood. Roofless buildings and burnt vehicles, everywhere. I visited the Comboni Primary School, a beautiful concrete building. Some of its classrooms still stood doorless and windowless, a testament to the looting. Yet they stood. And the children stood also. Energetic, defiant, they stood in the morning assembly. I can still hear the voices of the little kindergarteners in their tents singing songs of hope. At night, I remember seeing searing lights, widely spaced, from the edge of town. I wondered and asked about their source. People told me that it was from the United Nations Mission in Sudan’s (UNMIS) Compound. After the attack on Abyei town, UNMIS almost doubled the compound’s wire fence in height and added huge lights, facing outwards, for protection. For UNMIS’ safety, not the people’s. UNMIS had refused to open its gates to protect civilians during the siege, even though it was within its mandate. Afterward, they bolstered their enclave, should it happen again. I saw the compound for myself. It was shameful but not new. The United Nations Missions’ civilian protection record in Africa is nothing, if not dismal. The current United Nations Interim Force for Abyei (UNISFA) may even be a regression rather than an improvement.

International and regional mechanisms of dispute management have miserably failed the people of Abyei. For starters, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), ending Sudan’s long civil war, was deadlocked because of a lack of agreement on the issue of Abyei. It took a proposal presented by Senator John Danforth, the then US Special Envoy to Sudan, for a breakthrough. That proposal accepted wholly by the two parties (NCP and SPLM) became the basis for the Abyei Protocol. Hailed by many as groundbreaking, unprecedented, and a model for dispute resolution agreements, the CPA suffered many setbacks in implementation. And to date, Abyei, Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile hang in the balance, casualties of ensuring the right of self-determination for southern Sudan. One wonders whether the two parties traded the fate of the three areas in an under-the-table deal for South Sudan’s independence. Perhaps a duplicitous feat, perhaps naiveté, maybe both. One also wonders, at the risk of sounding treacherous, if there was another way. Whatever the case, Abyei suffers to this day.

There are two levels of disputes in Abyei. One between the two governments of Sudan and South Sudan, with different motivations on each side. Sudan’s motivation is the oil and therefore the land, and South Sudan’s motivation is the people tied to claim to their ancestral land. Sudan had been committed to clearing the Ngok Dinka from Abyei. As a consequence, they are have suffered repeated cycles of massive internal displacement since the 1960s. Sudan Government repeatedly employed depopulation policies in Abyei, mainly terror, for which recorded history can attest. The other level is between the Messiryia and the Ngok Dinka over shared resources, grazing land, and water for cattle that lies within the territory of the Ngok and further into South Sudan. A common dispute between communities with shared resources. Traditional dispute mechanisms usually restored calm and the two communities’ co-existed in relative calm until Sudan militarized the Messiryia and used them as proxies in their bid to depopulate, more accurately ethnically cleanse Abyei.

The Messiryia have been used to the detriment of the Ngok and their own. Of course, they are the hand meting atrocities, and to humanize them is counterintuitive. Yet to humanize them, one who would hope, is to loosen them from the radicalizing grip of the real culprit. One wonders about their calculus and what they hope to gain from their arrangement as proxies. The only explanation that makes sense is that Khartoum promised the Messiryia the land once depopulated or ethnically cleansed. The Messiryia areas are severely underdeveloped with no access to the most basic services, yet they constantly breach their ties with the Ngok, to whom their livelihood and destiny are linked. The ultimate breach of whatever shred of good faith that remained between the two communities occurred on another ominous day of May, 4 May 2013. On that day, the Paramount Chief of the Ngok Dinka, Chief Kuol Deng Majok, was gunned down, murdered by the Messiryia while in the escort of the UNISFA. A shock. A man of the people, gunned down! A betrayal. How can it happen while in the protection of UNISFA and within its convoy?