Observers of Sudan say the Khartoum government is actively pitting rival ethnic groups against each other in the oil-rich Abyei region. The area became the focus of international attention recently when forces from the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum clashed. The conflict destroyed towns and villages, displaced thousands of people and raised concerns of a return to civil war in Sudan. Abyei is claimed by both the SPLM and the al-Bashir administration. In the third part of a five-part series on Abyei, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the roles of the region’s ethnic groups in the recent violence.
“Abyei is a very remote area. In terms of infrastructure and development, there’s very little. Geographically speaking, it’s a flat area of plains and grasslands, forested grasslands,” explains Daniel Jok Deng, who manages a Sudanese NGO in the area.
“Actually, it’s a very rich acacia ground; acacia is the tree that produces gum Arabic, which is quite a big international commodity and Abyei is a forested area of acacia, with sandy soil and no stones, and a sea of oil underneath it.”
Peter Moszynski, a British aid worker who’s operated in Abyei since 1981, says the harsh environment and scarcity of essential resources play a role in the “almost constant tension” in the region.
“One of the reasons why there’s currently conflict there is because both the local Arab Misseriya [group] and the local Dinka southerners are annual pastoralists who move backwards and forwards according to the rain with their cattle herds. In a way, the conflicts have started over Arabs and Dinkas fighting over grazing rights, but of course this is something that both sides have been [exploiting] because of strategic interests.”
The Misseriya role in the fighting
Moszynski says the Misseriya are playing a “significant” role in the tension in Abyei.
“While they [the Arab nomads] are not actually resident within Abyei, which is defined in the constitution as the nine chiefdoms of the Ngok Dinka, they are seasonal visitors. They inhabit the desert area north of Abyei, and they are dependent for their livelihoods on water in the Abyei area, and so they have seasonal access with their cows to come into Abyei to access that water.”
Deng points out that the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka are, ironically, related by blood – but starkly separated by religion, language and culture: “The Ngok Dinka are black African Christians, and as such, allies of the SPLM, whereas the Misseriya are Arabs and follow Islam.”
For these reasons, says Moszynski, Khartoum has long embraced the Misseriya.
“They were one of the first groups co-opted as tribal militias by the previous [Sudanese] government in 1987, when they were armed as a way to fight the predominantly southern SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]. These [Misseriya] are quite related to…other Arab groups that make [up] the janjaweed in Darfur. [Abyei] borders on southern Darfur.”
Moszynski says the janjaweed Arab militia, which is accused of killing black Africans in Darfur on behalf of Khartoum, has much in common with the Misseriya.
“Whoever’s been in power in Khartoum over the last few decades, they’ve always been able to use divide and rule to get their policies across – predominantly by arming local militias. They’ve been giving guns to people who want to argue about land and grazing rights. However, it creates the strategic situation where the non-Arab population of Abyei is now being completely displaced.”
Tensions over resources complicate situation
People who are familiar with conditions in Abyei say there is a long history of tensions between the Misseriya and the Dinka over grazing and other scarce resources in the region.
But Moszynski says Khartoum has been using such “ethnic tribal conflicts” as an excuse to attack areas like Abyei under the guise of maintaining “law and order.”
Deng says traditional leaders from both the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya have in the past successfully resolved disagreements between their peoples.
“Definitely there have been conflicts in the past, and these conflicts have been effectively contained by traditional mechanisms – especially the role of the chiefs in mediating conflict…. When you speak to the Misseriya and Dinka of Abyei, they will stress their very long history of peaceful coexistence. And that peace was largely based on local protocols about sharing basic resources, like access to water and grazing lands.”
Deng adds that up until relatively recently, even when tension between the rival pastoralists did “boil over” into open fighting in Abyei, conflicts were fought with traditional weapons, and so casualties were low.
“It was largely gesturing and a lot of macho kind of posturing rather than open conflict, and symbolism by the young warriors, knowing that violence would be contained by the chiefs. Now it’s totally different. Now, these groups have access to small arms, which lead to massive human destruction,” Deng explains.
He holds the al-Bashir administration largely responsible.
“You have the penetration of political forces from Khartoum, with money and guns, who are buying off communities and sending them off into other communities to make war in the name of ethnicity.”
He says the Sudan government’s frequent statements that the root causes of conflicts such as that in Abyei are “ethnic” are “disingenuous, and that is a guise and a mask over criminal activity – arming local communities against others for the purpose of controlling resources.”
Deng is convinced that it remains in Khartoum’s interests to keep the Dinka and Misseriya at each other’s throats. The longer this goes on, he says, the longer the government of Sudan will be able to argue to keep its troops in and around Abyei, and in so doing, the greater the chance of a resumption of civil war between the south and north.
The Khartoum government did not respond to numerous requests for interviews regarding Abyei and its dealings with the Misseriya group.