Rebecca Tinsley writes about the recent vote by residents in the hotly contested Abyei State to become part of South Sudan. “Sudan, already facing regional insurgencies and austerity riots,” writes Tinsley, “is on the brink of more violence along its border with South Sudan.” Human rights groups say that the fate of Abyei, an area half the size of Belgium, reveals the international community’s lack of consistency and interest in the rights of minorities.
The Sudanese state of Abyei is struggling with two persisting African dilemmas: what happens when colonial borders do not reflect the existence of nomadic herders, and who defends the rights of religious or ethnic minorities when a ruling regime seeks to eliminate those minorities?
In 2005 the international community celebrated a peace agreement guaranteeing the largely non-Arab and non-Muslim people of southern Sudan a secession referendum. This led to the creation of South Sudan in 2011, ending decades of fighting, but depriving the Khartoum regime of 75% of its former oil reserves.
However, the fate of oil-rich Abyei was left unsettled, and a 2011 vote was delayed due to disagreement about who was entitled to vote. The African Union (AU) proposed a referendum in October 2013, but cancelled it because Khartoum held out for the enfranchisement of nomadic Arab herders sympathetic to remaining in Sudan.
Now, Abyei has defiantly held its own unofficial vote, with 99.9 % voting in favor of leaving Sudan and joining South Sudan. Tim Flatman, an independent observer, reported ahead of the two-day referendum that, “Everything looks thorough, comprehensive, well-organized and inclusive-technically excellent.”
Most of Abyei’s permanent residents are the Ngok Dinka, non-Arab and Christian. However, each year the Arab Misseriya tribe arrives to graze its animals on Abyei’s fertile lands. In 2009 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, an intergovernmental body resolving disputes since 1899, decreed that only the Dinka and others with permanent abodes could vote in a referendum.
Knowing this would inevitably result in Abyei becoming part of South Sudan, Khartoum refused to allow the vote. Sudan occupied the state in 2011, carrying out a ruthless ethnic purge against black Africans and Christians who had already faced decades of oppression from their government.
Sudan’s ruling Arabs’ views go back centuries to their role in enslaving millions of black Africans. When Sudan gained independence in 1956, those who identified as Arab, despite massive intermarriage, wanted to define their new nation’s identity by creating an Arab, Muslim country.
To this end they have been killing and ethnically cleansing non-Arabs and non-Muslims for more than half a century. Two million died in the struggle for an independent South Sudan, and the non-Arab people of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan continue to this day to withstand aerial bombardment and attack by the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Although many in Abyei fought in the battles that won South Sudan’s independence, the new nation has prioritized reconciliation with Khartoum for the sake of exporting oil in pipelines across Sudanese territory. Knowing they have lost any international backers, Abyei leaders proceeded with their unilateral, unofficial referendum to make a political point. The Misseriya boycotted the referendum, which the AU has said could be a threat to peace between Sudan and South Sudan.
The Dinka leadership told international observers they despaired of negotiating with Khartoum following the assassination of their former paramount chief in May 2013. The AU has condemned Khartoum in unusually strong terms for presenting “contrived security reasons” for stopping its visit to Abyei in late October. The AU’s change of tone may be due to satellite images showing a build-up of Sudanese military assets along the border of Abyei. Last month, a Sudanese bishop wrote a letter to US President Barrack Obama, calling for an international response to perceived crimes of humanity committed by the Khartoum regime. Rev. Andudu Adam Elnail, Bishop of Kadugli diocese, said Sudan is plagued by “government-sponsored crimes against humanity,” which deserve the world’s attention.
Father, we pray for the people of Abyei in their vulnerable position on the border of Sudan. We pray for the many Christians and even the African Muslims there who have suffered persecution for so many years from the Arab Muslims to the north. We pray against an outbreak of violence as a result of the election that was held. As we consider the role of the church in Abyei, we pray that you would grant church leaders wisdom as to how to respond should war break out. We pray for the believers there, descended from the ancient people of Cush, that they would remain strong in their faith and be a powerful witness to the lost around them. In the name of Jesus who strengthens His people in times of trouble, Amen.