No Lines, No Peace? On the Borders of Abyei

This essay was originally published by Anthropology News in their In Focus section (21/2/2012). You can read the original here.

On the Borders of Abyei

In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brought an end to Sudan’s second civil war. Since then, Abyei – a small contested area now nestled between Sudan and South Sudan – has been the object of several peace agreements, a boundaries commission, and an international arbitration; all of which has made a solution to the Abyei crisis more distant than ever.

In May 2011, after months of militia attacks sponsored by the National Congress Party (NCP), the ruling clique in Sudan, the Sudanese army occupied Abyei, displacing the resident population in an attack that an internal UN memo said was “tantamount to ethnic cleansing.” As of February 2012, Abyei continues to be occupied.

Routes through the Territory

Until May 2011, Abyei’s principal inhabitants were the Ngok Dinka, a transhumant group that is part of the Dinka people of South Sudan. Some groups of Misseriya – an Arab people who primarily live in South Kordofan, Sudan, north of Abyei – annually migrate to the area in search of pasture for their cattle. Meetings between the two groups would traditionally determine the migration routes, in accordance with changing social, political, and ecological conditions. The second civil war transformed this relationship. The Sudanese government sponsored Misseriya militias that razed Ngok Dinka settlements, and consolidated Sudanese control of the areas around Abyei’s oil fields.

Abyei contains within it two conflicts: a territorial war between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which is the major party in the nascent state of South Sudan, and a conflict between the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka that evinces notions of territory very different to the nation-state’s concern with defined and delimited areas of control. While these conflicts are distinct, the lines between them are blurred – both the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka have been used by the Sudans to pursue political programs, and, just as frequently, both groups have taken up the language (and weapons) of the state to advance their own ends.

While this blurring has determined political dynamics on the ground, it has not been reflected in international debates about Abyei.

Paths to the Courtroom

In the debates that occurred between 2005 and 2011, emphasis was placed on Sudan and the SPLM as political actors; the existence of the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya as properly political actors in their own right was continually ignored.

In 2005, Abyei was such a contentious issue that neither side could agree on the wording of the agreement dealing with the territory. In the end, it was the American negotiating team that drafted the protocol.

Abyei had an uncertain status because, while the Ngok Dinka are connected to South Sudan, in 1905 the Anglo-Egyptian condominium government transferred Abyei to what is now South Kordofan. The Abyei protocol states that the Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) should “define and demarcate the area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905,” and that this area will be the territory of Abyei. The commission was principally composed of a team of five international experts.

The strangeness of this solution should be remarked upon. Abyei is contested by the SPLM and the NCP – parties that are both interested in the area’s oil reserves, and have important local political constituencies. The borders of the territory, however, were to be determined by a group of international experts, on the basis of the historical record, as if present political struggles could be solved by reference to 1905.

The Abyei protocol contains another important clause. Clause 1.1.3 states that: “The Misseriya and other nomadic peoples retain their traditional rights to graze cattle and move across the territory of Abyei.”

The fiction that the Abyei protocol perpetuated, which has been aped by every subsequent peace treaty, is that it is possible to think about “traditional rights” outside of the state, as if “traditional rights” were not always negotiated in relation to changes in state politics. This fiction has meant that while, on the ground, grazing routes are transformed by politics, they are not considered a proper subject for political negotiation.

Lines on the Ground 

The task for the ABC was to determine the “area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms”, knowing that, if – as was the case – South Sudan secedes, the border it draws will be part of a national border, and that, as transhumant peoples, the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya will not simply have areas of continuous habitation.

The strangeness of the task of the ABC was that it was being asked to draw up national boundaries on the basis of historical evidence of transhumant movement, at the same time as “traditional rights” to grazing were guaranteed to be unaffected by the border the ABC drew.

The ABC confronted an impossible task. The formula used by the Abyei protocol assumed that there was an area (something that can be delimited) that was transferred, and that this area is equivalent to the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms.

If only things were so simple. There is no mention of nine chiefdoms in the historical record for 1905. There is talk of the territory of “Sultan Rob” (Arop Biong), as the colonial officers called him, but one must assume his territory is equivalent to the area of the nine chiefdoms, because, even worse, there is no map of the territory of Sultan Rob, and no map of the territory that was transferred. It may well have been that what was transferred was not a territory at all, but a group of people with shifting boundaries who were moved only insofar as a different colonial officer was now responsible for them.

Acting Like a State

While the ABC was compiling its report, it consulted the Misseriya about their grazing routes, both contemporary and historical. Until 2010, one could usefully divide – as the ABC did – the use of territory by the two groups into areas of primary rights, and secondary rights. The Misseriya, for instance, had secondary rights to graze along routes that led through Abyei in the dry season. These were durational rights, and they were flexible – the routes themselves would change as ecological and political conditions changed. During the consultations, these secondary rights were transformed into the basis for absolute claims: the Misseriya claimed that they had always owned Abyei, as did the Ngok Dinka.

The Abyei protocol allowed no space for a debate about the effect of national borders on “traditional rights”, and so these rights were translated into the dominant discourse: they became claims about absolute territory, and non-durational ownership.

The ABC report did the best it could do with a very scanty historical record, but a challenge seemed inevitable. In the international arbitration that followed, Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, an Ambassador without portfolio for the Sudanese government, mocked the report: saying: “No one in 1905 could ever conceive that the boundary of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms constituted a straight line running through a featureless plain.”

The Misseriya and the NCP rejected the report. The situation in Abyei deteriorated, and, following violence in 2008 that left Abyei in ruins, both parties agreed to take the ABC report to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which was to judge whether the ABC had exceeded their mandate.

The lengthy proceedings in The Hague did not touch on the basic impossibility of the ABC’s task. Instead, James Crawford, Sudan’s lead lawyer, stood up and announced, during the proceedings: “that this is a case of anthropological fact.”

Nomadic States

The final PCA decision ruled that the PCA had exceeded its mandate, and reduced the area of Abyei so that it excluded Heglig, an important oil field in the east, which would then be part of South Kordofan; the decision was a sop to appease the Sudanese government.

It didn’t work. Just like subsequent peace treaties, the PCA – which also guaranteed “traditional rights “ – excluded from consideration the way that Misseriya-Ngok Dinka relations are inextricably bound up with the political situation. Because of this division, the last six years have seen nomads acting like states, and states acting like nomads.

The Misseriya also traditionally migrated to Unity and Bahr el Ghazal states, in South Sudan itself. Since 2005, they have complained of blockages on their freedom of movement by the Southern army, and heavy border taxes. Despite the guarantees given in the CPA, politicians from South Sudan I have spoken to suggest that a national border, with all the usual mechanisms of governance (passports, border police) will be inevitable, transforming, if not abolishing, the traditional negotiations over grazing routes. In such circumstances, it is understandable if the Misseriya articulate absolute claims over the grazing territory they have left, and fight for it.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese state has increasingly acted through the Misseriya. From January to March, Sudan sponsored Misseriya militia attacks against the Ngok Dinka residents of Abyei, while claiming that they were not responsible. In a case of what Deleuze would call the relationship between the war-machine and the state, the state here takes up a force exterior to itself to pursue its own agenda.

States acting like nomads. Nomads acting like states. While the CPA, ABC, PCA, and the other members of the alphabet soup, are clearly not responsible for May’s forced displacement of the Ngok Dinka, the insistence on delimited borders, and on a separation between ”traditional rights” and national sovereignty, has obscured the stakes of the conflict in Abyei, marginalized the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya, and led the failure of peace processes, reports, and international arbitrations.