Abyei: political battle fuels tension in oil-rich crossroads

April 03, 2008 (AFP)

Troop numbers are building and the threat of war looms over Abyei, a dusty, oil-rich crossroads where Sudan's north and south are being sucked into a political battle that could unhinge a 2005 peace. The district and its town of mud huts and flimsy market shacks are a teeming maze of overlapping tribal and political loyalties laced with fear and tension, where humanitarian vehicles and motorbikes hurtle down dirt tracks. Khartoum's two ruling coalition partners are at loggerheads over what the mainly Muslim north interprets as the rival Christian and animist south's unilateral dispatch of one of its own to administer the area, without presidential approval.

The southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement in turn is losing patience with what it sees as the failure of President Omar Al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) to implement a protocol for governing this oil-rich zone during a transition period. The protocol, which helped end the two-decade civil war, stipulates that the joint presidency of Beshir, First Vice President and south Sudan leader Salva Kiir and Vice President Ali Osman Taha, a northerner, appoint Abyei's administrator.

But last week, southerner Edward Leno arrived with a planeload of supporters and five "cabinet secretaries" as local SPLM chairman and to supervise local administration with limited funds from south Sudan, party leaders say. "This is a violation. No one is allowed to take a decision without it being adopted by the presidency," Kamal Obeid, information secretary for Beshir's party, told AFP.

Dressed immaculately at the head of a conference table filling a pre-fabricated office on the SPLM compound, Leno says avoiding war between the rival ethnic groups dominates "almost every aspect of my work." "It's hanging but we are stopping it," he said. The Sudanese military, however, accuses him of stirring up old tensions between the Ngok Dinka, who supported the SPLM against the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum, and the Arab Messeria tribe, who fought in a pro-government militia. The truce ending the war calls for a transition through 2011, when Abyei will hold two referenda: one on whether it will retain its special administrative status in north Sudan or be incorporated into the south; as well as the broader, second one on whether the south should break away as an independent state.

But "the tension increased after the arrival of Edward Leno," charged Brigadier General Muntasir Sabier, interim commander of the 31st Brigade based in Abyei. "Since then, new SPLA forces entered the town.. and deployed to the north," Sabier said, referring to the SPLM's military wing. He said they came with armored vehicles and land cruisers and set up checkpoints. "We complained about this violation to the United Nations," he added, charging that joint units of Sudanese military and SPLA should secure Leno.

'Many of the communities are increasingly insecure'-In his grimy office where a faint breeze barely eases the stifling heat, Zacharia Atem Piyin, the NCP representative, seems a world away from Leno. "The Dinka want to have a separate administration that excludes the Messeria. This is wrong because we are sharing grass, water and land," he said.

As a guest speaker at a rally in Leno's honor, Zacharia insisted the land belonged to both peoples, triggering raucous laughter in the VIP tent where SPLM officials good-naturedly shook their heads. The Arab Messeria are disunited but believe it was their land first, that people lived in peace until young Ngok Dinka went away to get an education and agitated for the south in the final days of British colonial rule.

The coming of Edward Leno will cost war if they don't change to a unity government in the area," warned Qabashi Atom Qabashi, a white-robed Messeria representative as he sat under a straw roof at the market sipping a coke. Concern over the issue was underscored Monday when Foreign Minister Deng Alor, a top member of the SPLM, opted out of the opening session of South African-chaired talks on Sudan's reconstruction-to hold separate talks about Abyei with Kiir elsewhere in Khartoum.

Alor told AFP further discussions would be held with Beshir and that "if the NCP wants a confrontation we'll do it." Even South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumana, in comments to a battery of microphones, urged "the Sudanese government of national unity and the government of south Sudan to really attend to this matter of Abyei." On the ground, army-sponsored militia and SPLA forces are mobilizing in the arid scrubland north of town, making the area ever more dangerous and hampering UN humanitarian assistance.

Many of the communities we are working with are becoming increasingly insecure and hard to reach. So far, the number of people we anticipated coming back is down 80 percent," said the Abyei UN resident coordinator Jason Matus. Memories of Arab violence haunts newly arrived Dinka men, women and children who walked for days, sleeping in the bush and eating leaves to escape what they said was intimidation farther north.

Atuc Akot does not know her age but comes from Nyama, 80 kilometers from Abyei. She says her husband was killed in a quarrel with Messeria and that the scars on her body come from her axe-wielding Messeria employer. "I'm a woman. The way I see the bagara (Arabs), they are bad people. If they get the chance, they'll kill us. Now, if I died here, it means I came to my land. It is Dinka land and it means I will die with my people," she said.

The borders of the wider area are still undetermined, though Leno says the frontier should be fixed 100 kilometers north of the town. But Arab Messeria nomads who go south every dry season with their cattle depend on access to the south for their livelihoods. As for the 2011 referenda, Leno has no doubts. "I don't want to predict what the people will decide, but the way I'm seeing it, they are going to the south-that one I am sure of," he said.


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