Sudan Nomads Warn of War as Leaders Fail to End Abyei Fight

A nomadic group in the disputed border region of Abyei threatened war if it’s excluded from a referendum over the area’s status, after the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan failed to end an impasse over the issue.

Abyei is contested by the Ngok Dinka, who are settled in the area and consider themselves southerners, and Misseriya nomads who herd their cattle south in the dry season and are supported by the government in Khartoum. A referendum on Abyei was promised as part of a 2005 deal that ended Sudan’s two-decade civil war. South Sudan split from the north two years ago after a vote that was part of the peace accord.

Plans by the Ngok Dinka community to hold a unilateral vote on the area’s sovereignty this month will only take place “over our dead bodies,” said Sadig Babo Nimir, a leader of the Misseriya ethnic group, which also lays claim to the territory.

Sudan’s government has failed to make any progress on the dispute because of “its incompetence,” Nimir said in a phone interview from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on Oct. 23. “They do not negotiate properly -- it is better to leave it to us to handle the problem.”

The impasse over Abyei has threatened to derail improving relations between Sudan and South Sudan, which agreed in March to restart crude oil exports from the south’s oil fields via pipelines to Port Sudan. When it became independent, South Sudan took three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil production of 490,000 barrels a day.

Chief Killed

South Sudan’s low-sulfur crude, which is prized by Japanese buyers for use as clean-burning power-generation fuel, is pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp.

Tensions have escalated in Abyei since the killing in May of the Ngok Dinka leader Kuol Deng Kuol, who the United Nations said was traveling in a convoy of peacekeepers attacked by a Misseriya tribe member. Clashes between the north and south in May-June 2011 forced more than 113,000 people to flee their homes in the area, according to the UN.

The Misseriya “are armed enough to cause a lot of mess,” according to Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute. The group probably won’t resort to conflict “as long as there are no concrete steps towards a referendum that excludes them,” he said yesterday in a phone interview from Freiburg, Germany.

‘Grave Concern’

The UN Security Council yesterday expressed its “grave concern about the highly volatile situation in Abyei” and urged the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to avoid any action that may heighten tension between the two countries.

Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart, Salva Kiir, this week failed to reach a solution on sovereignty for the border region. Talks in the southern capital, Juba, on Oct. 22 ended with a renewed agreement to “move quick to establish” a joint administration and police force for Abyei, a pledge previously made in January. Both measures are necessary to prepare for a plebiscite recognized by the two nations.

“If the government cannot find a solution and the Dinka go through with their plans then we will wage a war that will bring Sudan back to square one,” Mahdi Babo Nimir, a Misseriya leader, said yesterday in a phone interview. Mahdi and Sadig’s brother, Mokhtar, is the official leader of the ethnic group.

Unilateral Plebiscite

The African Union has called for a referendum to be held this month, with only people who reside in the area eligible to vote on which country Abyei belongs to. That proposal is backed by South Sudan and rejected by the north. The Ngok Dinka community on Oct. 18 said it plans to hold a unilateral plebiscite on the area.

South Sudan says it won’t recognize the result of a unilateral vote and has called for the Security Council and African Union to decide on the way forward. An African Union delegation will visit Abyei on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 as an “opportunity to ease tension in the region,” according to the UN.

The Misseriya community’s rights to traverse Abyei and graze cattle are concessions “given to an alien, they’re not given to citizens,” South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei, told reporters in Juba yesterday.

“Since the Misseriya are enjoying these rights then they’re aliens,” he said. “They’ve no right to vote.”

At least 2,500 people arrived in Abyei from South Sudan since early September, coinciding with the timing of the proposed referendum, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report this month.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ahmed Feteha in Cairo at afeteha@bloomberg.net; Mading Ngor in Juba at mngor@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net

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