Thursday, 7 April 2011

Abyei: phrasing the terms of war

In a paper recently released by the Enough Project the renowned Sudan historian and member of the Abyei Boundaries Commission, Douglas Johnson, resuscitated the CPA provision for a referendum on the status of Abyei, Northern or Southern, a clause that the two partners to the CPA, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) have with the connivance of their international interlocutors, the US most prominently, effectively shelved. In his promotion of the Abyei Referendum as the neglected but nevertheless just solution for the Abyei dilemma Johnson depicted the conflict as one between indigenous Dinka Ngok and migrant Misseriya, where “a local population is being progressively dislodged and displaced by government-backed settlements”, a situation that he suggests makes Abyei Sudan’s West Bank rather than the Kashmir claimed by two nations. In that regard, the paper collapsed the Misseriya and the NCP into one identity, the first being an instrument of the second with the definite objective to grab Abyei whatever it takes.
While Johnson acknowledged that the Misseriya have become increasingly dependent on Abyei’s pastures secondary to the expansion of mechanised farming and more recently the oil industry in the Muglad Basin to the north of Abyei he corrects this nuance with the proposition that the Misseriya driving further south are moving beyond their own homeland, as it were, in the Muglad-Babanusa region into the territory of the Dinka Ngok, “the only permanent inhabitants of the network of waterways flowing into the Bahr el-Arab/Kiir river now defined as the Abyei area”. Here the indigenous/migrant argument unfolds in full, since only those indigenous to a territory can claim rightful entitlement to land, and in consequence political rights.
Thereupon, Johnson defended the notion that the Misseriya cannot possibly qualify for participation in an Abyei referendum, a claim that he further supported by citing the precedent of the Southern Sudan Referendum Act which equally barred other seasonal migrants to the South from voting. In the same vein the paper established the indigenous Dinka Ngok as the certain victims of the Abyei conflict and the migrant Misseriya as its perennial perpetrators, a status for which the latter qualify with reference to the history of their alliance with the Khartoum regime stretching back to the 1970s. In that sense, Johnson argued for restorative justice in Abyei, namely the restoration of the Dinka Ngok’s right to decide on the administrative status of Abyei by referendum and the return of the displaced Ngok to their land, tagging to these two the guaranteed access to traditional grazing areas for both Misseriya and Dinka Ngok.
To further his case Johnson pointed at the outset of the paper to the parallel between the recent burning of villages in the Abyei region at the hands of Popular Defence Forces (PDF) and Misseriya militants and the atrocities attributed to the janjaweed in Darfur. The parallel however goes further. The Misseriya while not yet janjaweed will eventually evolve into the same once cornered into the very categories that Johnson suggested: a migrant population with no entitlement to land and political rights in a hostile territory demonised as incorrigible perpetrators of violence and devoid of any real agency except that which is bestowed upon them by the rulers of Khartoum.
Invoking ‘democracy’ Johnson argued that the abandonment of the Abyei Referendum amounts to an abandonment of democratic transition. The African Union and the US administration have in his judgement thus failed to realise that though there may be two sides to every question, each side is not equally right. Without prejudice to the partisanship of truth Johnson’s sides, indigenous versus migrant, and victim versus perpetrator, are false options if not battle cries rather than the coordinates of, in this case, a political not a historical truth. Imagine for instance the same dichotomies employed in the incessant squabbles over land entitlement within the definite territory of South Sudan. 

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.