Monday, November 4, 2013

Abyei Votes Overwhelmingly to Leave Sudan, Join South Sudan, but Khartoum Says Forget It

A referendum rally in Abyei, highlighting the Dinka people’s elaborate bovine clan emblems
This has been a season for referenda.  Readers maybe disappointed to learn that the tiny resort community of Lamb Island, near Brisbane, Queensland, recently voted down a proposal (reported on last month in this blog) to secede from Australia as the Republic of Nguduroodistan.  The final tally was 49 to 34, with most of the islet’s 426 residents not bothering to vote.  Meanwhile, disgruntled rural Republicans in the northeastern corner of the increasingly urban and Democratic state of Colorado are gearing up for ballot measures on November 5th on whether to create a State of North Colorado (or New Colorado).  (Read earlier reports from this blog on the North Colorado movement here, here, and here.) We will be bringing you analysis of that situation after the votes are in.

Disputed areas are in brown, including Abyei
Most dramatically, however, residents in the disputed Abyei District voted overwhelmingly on October 31st to leave the Republic of Sudan and join the fledgling Republic of South Sudan.  With 65,000 registered voters, the results were, according to Deng Alor, chairman of the Abyei Referendum High Committee, “99.9%” in favor of switching sides.  Never mind that it was a non-binding referendum; neither the (north) Sudanese nor the South Sudanese government approved it.  And never mind that red flag of a number, 99.9%.  (Why is it always 99.9%?  Just once, I’d like to see an election in some half-democratized corner of the world where the winning votes are a modest 99.85%—you know, just for verisimilitude’s sake.)  Most crucially, the question is 99.9% (or whatever it was) of whom?

Deng Alor
Abyei became one of the flashpoints of conflict when South Sudan prepared to secede from Sudan, under international auspices, in 2011.  The south had been waging war to secede from the north since the 1950s, when the Republic of Sudan was granted independence by the United Kingdom.  Northerners are mostly Arab and Muslim, and with an increasingly harsh, Islamist regime; southerners meanwhile, are mostly not Arabs, tend to follow local religions or Christianity, and are in sub-Saharan African, or “black,” in their ethnic appearance.  South Sudan was ushered along toward a binding referendum under the auspices of the United Nations and under the guidance of the George W. Bush and later Barack Obama administrations in the United States.  Geopolitically, this was a way for the West to contain the Sudanese regime in Khartoum (the northern capital) by chopping back its territory, in particular emasculating it of its oil-rich south.  The idea was that landlocked South Sudan would have the oil wealth but would be dependent on Sudanese pipelines and harbors to bring it to market, forcing at least a kind of uneasy cooperation.

South Sudanese flying their new flag on independence day, 2011
But the small, rectangular-shaped, oil-rich region district of Abyei was the scene of ethnic cleansing by northern forces in the months leading up to the planned independence referendum.  The state in which Abyei sits, South Kordofan, and another state, Blue Nile, were two regions which were mostly Southern in their cultural affinities and political sympathies but which were on the northern side of the proposed line.  These include the much-oppressed (non-Arab) Nubian ethnic group, in the mountains of Blue Nile.  A proviso in the negotiation of the referendum was that those two states would eventually vote separately on which of the two Sudans they preferred to be part of; naturally, those referenda never came.

There has been fighting all along the disputed border, before and after independence—not so much in the past few months—but Abyei has always been a focus of the conflict, partly because Khartoum early on attempted to remove “Southerners” from the district as a kind of pilot project, to see how much ethnic cleansing they could get away with in their attempt to keep South Kordofan and Blue Nile in the north.  Some even suggested making the little scrap of land an independent United Republic of Abyei, belonging to neither Sudan.  (This would have been one of many examples in history of a border people becoming elevated to the level of a state or a nationality by virtue of being in territorial dispute.  Kosovo, Transylvania’s Magyars, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Madheshi Hindus of Nepal, and the Pattani Muslims of southern Thailand are only some among many examples.)

The two ethnic groupings that are a presence in Abyei are (1) communities belonging to the Ngok, one of many subdivisions of the Dinka nationality—a traditionally pastoralist society, transhumant but increasingly settled, of the kind that make up a large part of the population of South Sudan—and the Misseriya Arabs, cattle herders who are more nomadic and actually only reside in Abyei for part of their annual seasonal round.  The million or so Misseriya make up a large part of the population of South Kordofan, southern Darfur, and central Chad.  In fact, last week’s referendum was scheduled to occur just before large numbers of Misseriya return to their Abyei grazing lands and thus swell the local population to much greater than the number on the referendum’s voting rolls.  Ironically, South Africa’s often controversial former president, Thabo Mbeki, who was a member of an African Union panel weighing in on the larger conflict, suggested last year that there be a referendum on Abyei in which only Dinka could vote—ironically, given the color-blind spirit of inclusiveness that ushered his own homeland to democracy two decades ago with minimal bloodshed and disunity.  Mbeki’s suggestion was shouted down, but what he proposed was essentially what the Dinka have just carried out.

It is true that Khartoum is cruelly stonewalling the opportunity for the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile to vote to join the South, as they would most probably do, but it is also true that the local Dinka have engineered a shamefully rigged electoral process.  One can only conceive that the Dinka were seeking a provocation that would reignite the war.

But cooler heads are prevailing in Khartoum and Juba, the northern and southern capitals.  The South Sudanese government has distanced itself from the vote and has banned advertisements connected with it from the media.  Sudan, for its part, is taking a firm stand.  Nafie Ali Nafie, a high-ranking presidential advisor, said that the results were illegitimate and that if the vote were held after the seasonal return of the Misseriya, the results would have been the opposite.

South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, with Hillary Rodham Clinton
As in many similar cases around the world, however (think: Bosnia, Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tibet), violence and ethnic cleansing and aggressive settlement have changed the facts on the ground, so that it becomes contentious and difficult to decide who should vote on the status of a territory—the people living there now (often as the result of importation for this purpose), or something more closely approximating the pre-conflict population dynamics.

The two Sudans are far from deciding the fate of Abyei and of the rest of the disputed areas.  For the time being, though, both national leaderships seem determined not to let Abyei drag them both into war once again.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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