Most of those fleeing Abyei were from the Dinka Ngok, a southern ethnic group who are the permanent residents of the region. After this week’s UN Security Council trip to Sudan, US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the occupation of Abyei was a violation of the 2005 peace deal which ended the 22-year civil war. “There’s real concern that the government of Sudan may have taken a decision to continue to occupy Abyei for its own political advantage for an indefinite period,” the AP news agency quotes her as saying.
The UN has said it believes militiamen from the Misseriya ethnic group were responsible for shooting at one of its helicopters on Wednesday. The Misseriya are northern nomads and one of two groups, along with the Dinka Ngok, to claim Abyei. The Misseriya were armed by Khartoum and used to attack the south during the civil war. Under the 2005 peace agreement, Abyei was granted special status and a joint administration was set up in 2008 to run the area until a referendum decided its fate. That vote was due to take place in January but has now been Abyei town may not look like much – a few low brick buildings scattered amongst thatched huts and dusty tracks – but this normally sleepy place is raising fears of a new Sudanese war after northern forces seized control over the weekend.
The region is often described as “oil-rich”, but after the 2009 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in The Hague, most of the oil fields now fall outside Abyei’s borders. It does still produce oil, but the real issue here is more ethnic than economic. Abyei is claimed by a southern group, the Dinka Ngok, and northern nomads, the Misseriya. The Misseriya spend part of each year grazing their cows in the area as part of a great trek into greener pastures which takes them deep into South Sudan, which is due to formally become independent from the north in July following decades of conflict.
There are several prominent Dinka Ngok in both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which fought for the South’s independence, and in the SPLM, its political wing. After serious fighting in Abyei three years ago, the separate armies withdrew and agreed to joint patrols. Armed groups of Misseriya were often used as a proxy army by Khartoum during the civil war. The north fears alienating the Misseriya, who also live in the combustible neighbouring state of Southern Kordofan, So both Khartoum and Juba, have strong reasons to care about a seemingly insignificant patch of land. Tensions in Abyei grew once a referendum scheduled for January on whether to join the north or the south did not take place. There was no agreement on whether the nomadic Misseriya were eligible to vote.
A string of clashes followed, but this latest incident, involving direct confrontation between the northern and southern armed forces, is by far the most serious. Shall we now sacrifice peace for which we paid so dearly for a limited piece of land in which both sides have undeniable rights?”