Ten degrees north: Sudan's melting pot

Encounters with Sudanese in Abyei underline the urgent need for referendum preparation and the scope of tensions on the ground, given the failure of political processes so far
Sophia L. R. Dawkins
31 October 2010

Abyei, says Francis Deng, is the eye that sees all. When unrest blinds Abyei, Sudan veers toward a deluded mirage.

The eye stares out from the scar that fuses north to south. Here, parched desert melts into verdant landscape; Islamic culture surrenders to Christianity and Animism; and Paramount Chief Deng Majok disastrously raised his pen in allegiance to Southern Kordofan.


It is Saturday morning at UNMIS. Leather-booted peacekeepers with paunches brunch on French Fries in the blistering sun.

A cool gust greets me as a container door swings open. This is my third encounter with Peter.

We first met when I was stranded in Abyei and a kind UN driver conveyed me, muddy and starving, to the UNMIS cafeteria. As he pegged out his washing, Peter shook my filthy hand. I had met one of West Africa’s most astute political thinkers, my colleague declared.

I presented myself in a more sanitary condition on the second acquaintance. We huddled under a tree to witness chiefs discuss, then reject, harmony with the Misseriya.

Today, Peter sits me amidst a pile of atlases. “Before we can talk, you must understand this line.” In felt pen, he traverses the continent at ten degrees north. His line cuts from Senegal, divides Nigeria – with Muslim Kano above and Christian Jos below – skates between Chad and the Central African Republic, then traces Sudan’s adolescent internal frontier. At Abyei, the pen concurs with the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

“Here, the Islamic conquest stopped. In the dry season, herders the breadth of the continent coax cattle and camels to where the land becomes wet. And then they retreat.”

In Dinka, an abyei describes an enormous tree that grows in the wild. When the rains come to the Abyei Area, the timbers that force their way through scars in the parched mud sprout virulent green decoration. For centuries, the Nilotic Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk had staked-out this locale and its southern plains for their beloved cattle. These diffuse lineages never formed centralized administrations but unite by language. The Dinka, for example, share traditions but form self-governing sections, like the Ngok – named after the mud fish of the Bahr el Arab.

The 3rd Caliphate, Peter asserts, forged a fragile future from this pacific past. Abbasid soldiers entered Sudan through Egypt, chasing Nubia’s imperial headquarters from Aswan to southern Kordofan. The Nilotes en route faced a stark choice: conversion or castration. Many pastoralists relinquished their names and languages. But others struck a more subtle deal.

In the fourteenth century, the Arabs started hunting for slaves – an endeavour that demanded delicate alliances, given that the scriptures forbade enslavement of fellow Muslims. The Baqqara of Kordofan proved indispensable allies. Although the Baqqara adopted Islam, they resisted arabization. Instead, the Arabs encouraged the Baqqara to preserve their migration patterns, provided that the pastoralists channelled slaves north whilst their cattle took water.

Some scholars evoke Isaiah 18 to mirror the destruction and famines that these migrations wrought:

Woe to the land shadowed with buzzing wings,

 Which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,

Which sends ambassadors by sea,

Even in vessels of reed on the waters, saying,


“ Go, swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth of skin,

To a people terrible from their beginning onward,

A nation powerful and treading down,

Whose land the rivers divide…


For before the harvest, when the bud is perfect

And the sour grape is ripening in the flower,

He will both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks

And take away and cut down the branches.

They will be left together for the mountain birds of prey

And for the beasts of the earth;

The birds of prey will summer on them,

 And all the beasts of the earth will winter on them.”


Throughout Mamluk Turkish rule, the adventurism of Mohamed Ali and the divisive Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the slave trade flourished at ten degrees north. Still today, gossiping market vendors tell myths of turbaned horsemen who enter the no-man’s land north of Abyei Town and tie young girls to their saddles like bundles of twigs.

These rumours are less a product of reality and more a function of felt separateness, suspicion and grievance. Conservative and liberal Ngok Dinka alike paint Abyei’s alliance to Kordofan as an unnatural but temporary accident. Yet, a century has passed since the Ngok chieftaincies embraced northern authority.

I ask Peter to explain this paradox. From whence grew this repulsion-fused allegiance to the North, I wanted to know. And why were sentiments of separateness so durable? Or, were these sentiments a recent invention made durable by myth?

Peter points to Abyei in 1905. This was the year that Sir Reginald Wingate presented Ngok Dinka Chief Arop Biong with an ultimatum. Wingate had decided to quash the slave trade. His strategy: annex the oppressed Dinka to Kordofan so that Britain could exercise its “protection.” The British afforded Arop Biong a choice. Either, he could conform to Wingate’s proposal or the nine Ngok Dinka chieftaincies would retain their status in Bahr el Ghazal.

As an enlightened leader, Arop Biong rejected the latter. True to its status as the largest marsh on Earth, the Sudd had defeated British efforts to extend administrative structures below the Bahr el Arab. In southern Sudan, public services remained in unregulated missionary hands.

Arop Biong came from a lineage of pragmatists. If he rejected Wingate’s proposal, prospects of power, education and mobility would vanish for his people. Thus, Abyei embraced Kordofan and an education system that forged an intelligentsia. Thanks to this decision, several Ngok Dinka intellectuals rose to international prominence – not least Francis Deng.

In 1956, Abyei once again faced a choice. Having wrought humanitarian havoc during Indian partition, the British feared the same in Sudan. Yet, as they had failed to administer the South with the North, the British could not delineate a feasible unity. Thus, they left North-South relations an open question under the aegis of a single but hollow state.

On the eve of independence, the British consulted Abyei’s leadership for the last time. Serenely, Paramount Chief Deng Majok laid down his sword and raised in the air a fountain pen. We shall fight with our education and not with violence, Deng Majok declared. Abyei remained with Kordofan.

Today’s Ngok Dinka might regard Deng Majok as a hero rather than a dunce had independence not dealt Abyei such a hazardous hand. Following the Torit mutiny – when southern elements of the Sudanese army attacked Arab generals in the first throes of civil war – Abyei spurned freedom fighters that would form the soul of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Khartoum’s solution? Arm the Baqqara Misseriya to quash insurgency by proxy. Monthly grazing with slave seizures assumed the flavour of guerrilla warfare.

Once an irritation to Khartoum, Abyei soon became an object of tempestuous desire. In 1979, President Nimeiri began the first of a long cycle of border disputes in an effort to claim ownership of Abyei’s beloved oil. No suitor since has wooed Abyei into a satisfactory border settlement. Not even the Permanent Court of Arbitration could produce a deal that Khartoum would implement.

The generator gives a whimper and I realise that, after two hours, Peter has yet to broach the referendum. When I ask about how UNMIS has pre-positioned itself, Peter wrinkles his brow:

“It boils down to oil and residency – who gets the money and who gets to vote. And for Abyei, there is no precedent.”


This piece is not aiming to convey frivolous anecdotes about aid worker quirks, or political sensation. Rather, I want to address the grave situation of Abyei – a melting pot of paradoxes that confronts my friend Achel, the lady tailor of Juol Jok; Adut, who dreams of Khartoum university for her sister; John, the child protection officer who traffics Times Literary Supplements in UN diplomatic bags; Jonas, the Norwegian peacekeeper so earnest about UNMIS’ credibility; Deng, the referendum educator whose family has fled to Nairobi for safety; the tattered police chief, who showed me his prison vegetable garden; the families that wait patiently in Way Station tents; and every Sudanese citizen – whatever that means – from Wadi Halfa to Yambio.

I first stared into Abyei’s melting pot one afternoon at Agok airfield. Deng positioned me between a lady in a crocheted cap and a spectacle-clad elder. Across the table, a young man mouthed the words of a USAID leaflet on gender based violence, as if to taunt the others with his literacy.

I recognized this character from my first day in Abyei Town. He was a youth leader who had broken up a UNDP workshop and challenged the facilitator to blows outside. The man caught my eye. He recognized me and my blood ran cold. The man approached me, laughing with disbelief: “Don’t you remember me?”

These were Abyei’s civil society leaders – the people who, in Deng’s estimation, hold the reins of peace. That day, Deng’s endeavour was to introduce the Abyei Referendum Laws to these people so that they could disseminate referendum information without resort to partisanship. I did not envy Deng’s task.

To begin, Deng posited that Abyei fared well under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). American lawyers had drafted a special protocol to provide a tight legal solution to the Abyei question. Accordingly, Chapter IV of the CPA, states:

Simultaneously with the referendum of Southern Sudan, the residents of Abyei will cast a separate vote. The preposition voted in the separate ballot will present the residents of Abyei with the following choices, irrespective of the results of the Southern referendum: a. That Abyei retains its special administrative status in the North; b. That Abyei be part of Bahr al Ghazal.

But where the protocol sports legal strength it harbours political contention. Whilst the CPA bequeaths Abyei a referendum, Article 6 of Chapter IV states:

The residents of Abyei Area shall be: The Members of Ngok Dinka community and other Sudanese residing in the area.

It is at this vague language that Peter wrinkled his brow.

The provision for “other Sudanese” holds Abyei hostage to a Catch-22. For the Ngok Dinka, the phrase provides an avenue for Khartoum to dilute the electorate and incorporate Misseriya voters – who, in Ngok eyes, may claim neither residence nor voting rights. If Khartoum pursues this tactic, the chieftaincies warn, the Ngok will resort to arms.

For the Misseriya, Chapter IV enshrines their right to determine Abyei’s future. If Misseriya cannot register, few will accept a referendum result. This could precipitate violent consequences.

Unhelpfully, the Abyei Referendum Laws (December 2009) remain silent about who counts as “other Sudanese.” Article 4 of the law establishes that a residency requirement should underpin the right to vote. In turn, Article 14 (1) of the law provides that the Abyei Area Referendum Commission shall determine the necessary criteria for residence. Government of Sudan (GOS) representatives hinted that the Commission would convene in February 2010 so that registration could commence in May.

As of October 2010, Abyei’s inhabitants await GOS to appoint a commission president. Less than one hundred days remain. It is the wet season. The NCP and SPLM are famous for protracted negotiations. Few referendum preparation agencies, let alone the UN, have aptitude at navigating Abyei’s adhesive mud.

Deng was already losing patience in July. Once we had bid farewell to the leaders charged with explaining ambiguous voting rights to their illiterate communities, I sat with Deng in the airfield grit.

“What’s the likelihood of a referendum in Abyei on January the 9th?”

“Zero percent.”

“What’s the chance of unrest?”

“If the GOS postpones the referendum by one day – ninety percent. Ninety percent chance of war.”

A colleague ground in the sharp shards of this fatalistic sentiment:

“We see the CPA as a six year ceasefire. Either we realise our right. Or we fight.”


Two weeks ago, the SPLM and NCP met in Addis Ababa to seal formation of the Abyei Area Referendum Commission. The negotiations ended in paralysis. Once again, government elites have treated the eye of Sudan as a tradeable asset rather than a bridge that has weathered cycles of confrontation prone to escalation.

During my morning dose of Miraya FM, I struggle to bury memories of shoe-less boys and mothers strapping AK-47s to their backs. This evokes nausea akin to the sickness that Nadine Gordimer describes in July’s People.

Gordimer wrote her novel in 1984 at a time when South Africans anticipated brutal guerrilla warfare. Many saw July’s People as prophecy. Gordimer put voice to violence that so many regarded as inevitable. But July’s People never came to pass.

I grip to this thought

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