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Abyei from a gulf to a bridge

By Francis Mading Deng

The proposed project aims at developing a conceptual, institutional and operational framework for supporting the sustainable return, resettlement, reintegration, and socio-economic development of the Ngok Dinka population. This is to be undertaken with due consideration for, and response to, the needs of the nomadic Missiriya Humr within their area of normal residence to the North of Ngok Dinka territory, as well as in the transitional zone of their dry seasonal migration in search of water and pasture. It should be noted, however, that it is not only the Missiriya who migrate seasonally to the Abyei area; South Sudan’s herders from several states also escape floods during the rainy season by moving to drier areas in Ngok land.The project envisions a strategic partnership involving local, national, regional and international actors and stakeholders. 


The underlying assumption is that in addition to the compelling humanitarian imperatives, these actors and stakeholders have much to gain from the security, stability, development andprosperity of the area and much to lose from the current conditions of conflict, insecurity, poverty and devastation.Elements of the Proposed ProjectSudan and South Sudan are deadlocked over Abyei. South Sudan faces a serious internal conflict within the SPLM/A, while Sudan remains engulfed in several internal conflicts. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis worsens across both countries and prospects increase that wars will become co-mingled, with Abyei remaining a violently contested area. The International Community is seeking ways of reconciling the conflicting positions of the parties on Abyei by addressing two interrelated concerns: those of the Ngok Dinka who, though indigenous inhabitants of the area, perceive their very survival as a people to be at risk from persistent northern invasion, and those of the neighboring Missiriya Humr who, though nomadic herders, perceive their access to seasonal water and grazing to be threatened by the prospects of Abyei joining an independent South Sudan.The measures needed to address these concerns can be summarized in the following ten points:

1. Supporting the return of the Ngok Dinka to their home areas in safety and dignity;


2. Ensuring the security, safety and integrity of the returning and resident populations, including through the de-militarization of the area;


3. Providing essential social services and meeting the humanitarian needs of the returningand resident populations, including addressing traumathrough psycho-social support;


4. Consolidating support for theAbyei Area Administration, traditional leaders, and localcivil society, and including by building their capacity toeffectively run the affairs of the area;


5. Facilitating thetransition from humanitarian assistance to recovery,durable settlement, and sustainable socio-economicdevelopment, with attention to former combatants and thosemade most vulnerable by war, especially women, children, andthe elderly;


6. Identifying and meeting the immediate needs of the Missiriya and othernomadic peoples, both in their areas of normal residence andin the transitional zone of their seasonal migration in search of water and pastures for their livestock, bearing in mind that South Sudan’s herders from several areas enter the area during the rainy season to escape floods;


7. Facilitating peace, reconciliation, and cooperative co-existence between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya Humr which have historically marked their relations at the North-South border of the Sudans and for which the Ngok Dinka traditional leaders have been intermediaries;


8. Developing a conceptual, institutional and operational framework for consolidating the strategic historic role of Abyei as a bridge between North and South of the old Sudan, now divided into Sudan and South Sudan, as envisaged in the Abyei Protocol of CPA, in the mutual interest of both parties, through such arrangements as the Dinka-Missiriya Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Development Cooperation


9. Ensuring the support of Sudan and South Sudan for this vision and its operational framework as a confidence-building mechanism that could facilitate constructive dialogue over theresolution of the conflict on the final status of Abyei; and,


10. Soliciting sustainable support for these arrangements from bilateral and multilateral donors, including the “TROIKA” (Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States), the African Union, and the United Nations. These measures should help restore Abyei to its historical role as a bridge between the North and the South, which, most unfortunately, recent conflicts have tragically undermined. This role, which the CPA reaffirms, is often cited as a legacy which should be restored, and to which the parties should re-commit themselves in their mutual interest. Strategic Premise of the Project. The proposal calls for aligning stakeholders’ interests in Abyei’s development and securing the support of credible sponsors, bilateral, regional and international. It assumes that an arrangement wherein all stakeholders win is possible. 


The proposal does not substitute for the various agreements over Abyei that were negotiated with international involvement. Rather, it should be seen as a stopgap solution designed to promote peace, reconciliation and cooperation among the various stakeholders. However, this could indeed facilitate the implementation of the final status of Abyei, helping to bring existing agreements to fruition. Understanding the interests of the parties to the conflict can help in the search for a solution. As the traditional residents and administrators of the Abyei Area, the main interest of the Ngok Dinka is to govern themselves democratically, develop their area, grow their food, educate their children, rebuild their homes, and develop their economy. They want to exist in peace, free from violent invasions and racial, ethnic and religious discrimination and marginalization. 

They could indeed be a constructive force for peaceful coexistence, interaction, and cooperation between Sudan and South Sudan. The Missiriya have enjoyed seasonal access to pastures in Ngok land for centuries and fear that in the event of the Ngok Dinka joining South Sudan, the new international border will deny them the access they have thus far enjoyed. Hence, the importance of re-establishing the credible guarantees that protect this access so that Missiriya’s interest in Abyei will be secured. Then the focus of the two communities would shift to improving development cooperation. 

The Government of Sudan, while driven by solidarity with the Missiriya as fellow Arabs and Muslims is, for the most part, interested in Abyei’s oil revenues,which they fear losing if the Ngok Dinka area is annexed to South Sudan, particularly in light of their current economic difficulties. They also do not want to lose an area that is now under their control. As long as their vital interests are secured, the Government of Sudan should appreciate an arrangement that empowers local people to foster peace, stability and cooperation in a strategic North-South border area. 

The Government of South Sudan caters to constituents in South Sudan who consider Abyei as racially, ethnically and culturally part and parcel of their country. Faced with so many other problems, including threats of civil war, the Government of South Sudan may also desire an amicable solution to the political difficulty posed by the Abyei issue in Sudan – South Sudan relations. These four stakeholders –Ngok, Missiriya, GoS and GoSS – could align their interests behind an arrangement whereby the Ngok Dinka area of Abyei is self-governing, with full guarantees of access for the Missiriya, wealth sharing between Juba and Khartoum, and internationally guaranteed security arrangements, and development cooperation. 

The precondition for such an arrangement would be making the area of Abyei a demilitarized zone where armed groups from either country would not be allowed to carry weapons and use Abyei as a rear base. A neutral Abyei under internationally supervised security arrangements would establish a creative space that could develop economically into an area of value for the whole region. 

Local Ownership with External Support. This proposal aims at addressing the immediate concerns of the Ngok Dinka in the context of their relations with their Missiriya neighbors and within the wider context of North – South regional and international power dynamics. While the note does not address the contested issues related to the final status of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan, it should help create a climate that is more conducive to a constructive negotiation of those issues. The Leadership of Abyei should assume ownership and the responsibility to implement this initiative by constituting an Operational Council, developing detailed plans of action and securing the necessary resources to support community efforts. This Council should include prominent leaders from the Abyei Area who would be willing to operate independently of the national South Sudan Government and be dedicated to the cause of the Abyei area. The members of the Operational Council will engage with the United Nations, Donor Governments, Local Authorities, International NGOs, and Local Civil Society, interfacing with those institutions, linking the local to the global.Conclusion: Building a Future from the Past. 

Historically, Abyei has been a constructive link between North and South of Sudan. Recent developments have turned the area into a point of zero sum conflict. In the interest of all concerned, it is important to restore traditional conciliatory and cooperative relationship between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya Humr Arabs. This concept note calls for the normalization and stabilization of the situation by encouraging the Ngok Dinka population to return, resettle, reconstruct their communities and restore cooperative relations with their Missiriya Humr Arab neighbors. This is a vision that requires support and cooperation between the two communities and their correlative two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, in partnership with the international community.

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