Global Policy Forum

UN Warns of Ethnic Cleansing in Sudan Town

The army of northern Sudan has violently seized the oil-rich border town of Abyei. In January 2011, the residents of Abyei were unable, due to threats from armed militia, to vote in a referendum on whether to remain a part of north Sudan or join a newly formed south Sudan. North Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has refused to accept the borders recommended by the Abyei Boundaries Commission and a decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.  The government of north Sudan is creating an imbalance in the demographic of the region by driving the Ngok Dinka out of Abyei and replacing them with members of the semi-nomadic Misseriya tribe (sympathetic to the North) which will impact upon the result of any referendum on the future of Abyei.

By Jeffrey Gettleman and Josh Kron

New York Times
May 25, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya — After seizing a disputed town on the border of the breakaway region of southern Sudan on Saturday, the army of northern Sudan is now facilitating a relatively large influx of nomadic people into the area, according to new United Nations field reports.

A United Nations photo showed looting at the World Food Program's compound, which was among the turmoil in Abyei.

United Nations officials said the move could mean that the Sudanese government was trying to "ethnically cleanse" the area in a bid to change its demographics permanently and annex the town, Abyei, just weeks before southern Sudan was supposed to split from the north and form its own country.

As the July target for the south's independence draws near, the battles over Abyei have grown more intense, and the moves by the north have threatened to plunge the two sides into a conflict that diplomats fear could scuttle the carefully choreographed treaty arranging for the south to become the world's newest state.

One United Nations official said a northern Sudanese general revealed this week that there was a plan to send 15,000 Misseriya, an Arab and nomadic people, into Abyei in the coming days, which could have a serious impact on Abyei's delicate demographics. Other United Nations officials estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 Misseriya had already entered Abyei town.

The Misseriya have a long history of being used by the Sudanese government as proxy forces, and they live in the vast stretches of desert around Abyei, occasionally going into Abyei to graze their animals. Abyei's permanent residents, however, are the Ngok Dinka.

Abyei straddles the north-south border and has oil (though a relatively scant amount), and both sides have laid emotional claims to it. A referendum was supposed to be held this year to decide what the people of Abyei wanted, but it was shelved because of disputes over who could vote.

If the Sudanese government is intent on settling thousands of Misseriya in Abyei, the United Nations official said, then last weekend's attack on Abyei "was planned as ethnic cleansing strategy."

"Displace the Ngok Dinka residents and bring in Misseriya, then allow the referendum to take place," said the official, who works closely on Sudan issues but was not authorized to speak publicly.

The strategy is akin to what the Sudanese government, based in Khartoum, did several years ago when it sent notorious janjaweed militias sweeping across the Darfur region, at its behest, to capture land belonging to dispossessed ethnic groups that the government was fighting.

"The north has begun to employ the same kind of scorched-earth tactics we saw Khartoum use in Darfur," said Eliza Griswold, who has closely studied Abyei and is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington. "All of these battles are brutal struggles for power and resources of land, oil, even water — waged by any means necessary."

The Sudanese government has denied any wrongdoing and so has a leader of the Misseriya community.

"This is absolutely absurd," said Sadig Nimir, a Misseriya elder, on Wednesday, from Khartoum, Sudan's capital. "We have no interest in occupying Abyei. Most Misseriya are cattle herders, and they don't come to Abyei except once a week on Thursdays to buy supplies like sugar and oil. They don't have the desire to live there. They only come to Abyei to graze."

He added: "We have no problem with the Ngok Dinka. We have nothing to do with this. This is a battle between two armies."

But in a sense, the Misseriya have their own army, made up of heavily armed cattle herders. On Wednesday, the United Nations said Misseriya militias fired on four United Nations helicopters in Abyei, though no one was hurt. Reports from witnesses indicated that marauding Misseriya gunmen had been burning down the huts of Ngok Dinka and looting their shops, along with United Nations warehouses.

Abyei has become the most combustible issue that Sudan must reckon with as it prepares to split in two. Under a peace treaty between the north and south, this rural, dusty borderland was supposed to be administered by a joint committee and patrolled by joint forces until its final status was resolved. But in the past few months, those joint forces have started killing one another, which the Khartoum government used as a pretext to send in soldiers and tanks over the weekend.

Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, declared Tuesday that Abyei was now "northern Sudanese land."

On Wednesday, Col. Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the southern Sudanese military forces, said the northern army was "supporting the Arab Misseriya into Abyei as part of their plan to settle the area."

"They want to show that they are part of Abyei, which is not true," he added.

As for the south's response, Colonel Aguer said, "We wait and see."

The consensus among most analysts is that neither side actually wants to go to war over Abyei because both have too much to lose.

The south has less than two months to go before declaring independence and does not want to risk the complications of the northern government's not recognizing its sovereignty. The north is worried about its access to oil (most of Sudan's oil lies in the south) and was on the verge of having punishing American sanctions lifted until the Abyei crisis erupted.

But analysts are troubled by the echoes of Darfur. Abyei, at 4,072 square miles, is a speck compared with Darfur, which is the size of France. Millions of people have been displaced by the violence in Darfur, with most still stuck in squalid refugee camps. But fewer than 50,000 people have been displaced by the Abyei incursion (50,000 is thought to be the size of Abyei's total population).

But there are clear parallels: nomad versus farmer, Arab versus African, a government-backed force versus civilians who have supported the rebels.

"It's impossible to understand Sudan's wars without seeing the basic pattern that underlies them all," Ms. Griswold said.

Many analysts believe Abyei will be a tinderbox until both sides compromise. The possible solutions are many: simply dividing Abyei territory between north and south, having the United Nations administer it, holding the referendum or granting the area its own independence and creating something along the lines of a tiny, landlocked United Republic of Abyei.

This week, an African Union team is planning to introduce a proposal to northern and southern leaders. African Union officials would not share any specifics, saying the issues were far too volatile to discuss publicly.


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