|A referendum rally in Abyei, highlighting the Dinka people’s elaborate bovine clan emblems|
|Disputed areas are in brown, including Abyei|
|South Sudanese flying their new flag on independence day, 2011|
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|
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.]