The Decision of the Experts of Abyei Borders Commission Revisited

By Dr. Amin H. Zainelabdin*

Sudanese American Community Development Organisation
English Forum, posted 11 March 2009

The Memorial and Reply Memorial, submitted by the government of Sudan to the Permanent Court of Arbitration on December 2008 and February 2009 , unearthed vast documentary material from the National Archives of Sudan to bolster its case on the Abyei Arbitration before a Tribunal of the PCA.

The Government of Sudan Memorial included an Expert report on Bahr el Arab by A. Macdonald (Acting Director-General of Ordnance Survey of Great Britain). The report contains a wealth of information and documented historical facts which were unbeknownst to the Experts of the   ABC. These facts provide more evidence to substantiate certain  argument in my recent book (Abyei Crisis : Between the International Law and the question of Arbitration ,2009), videlicit that  the ABC Experts Decision concerning the location of Ngok territory in 1905 is untrue and therefore invalid.  It is evident from these facts  that by the late 19th century, the  European explorers and travelers were having sufficient knowledge about the source and course of Bahr el Arab / Kir which they regarded as the boundary between Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal provinces. We believe that these facts will be instrumental in demonstrating the invalidity of  the ABC Experts’ final Decision which is based entirely on assumptions and not on factual historical evidence. Some of the facts that emerge from A. Macdonald report are :

1- Though each of the tribes living in the banks of the Bahr el Arab gave it a different name,(Rizeigat ,  Gurf, Humr,  Arab, Kir) it was well known that it originates  from the south of Hofrat el Nehas and that it is more than 700 km in length ,flowing north to Darfur, then turning southeast to join Bahr-el-Ghazal  at Ghabat-el-Arab. As GoS Memorial maintains: “ only one river meet this description; when contemporary accounts refer to Bahr el-Arab as the boundary between Kordofan and Bahr-el-Ghazal , they refer to this river and no other.” 1.

2- The European explorer Dr. Wilhelm Junker , who travelled in centeral Africa between 1875 and 1886, wrote in 1882 that “ The Bahr-el-Arab is fordable in dry season but not lower down.For five months or more it floods the swamps on its banks so as to form an almost impossible barrier between the negro and Arab , the fertile and the desert regions of Sudan”2.

3- Lupton, who was the deputy Governor of the Equatorial province during the Turco-Egyptian rule, described Bar-el-Ghazal as :

“the   tract of country which lies between 6  30 and 9 30 N and roughly speaking from 25 to 31 E. Long. It is bounded in the north by the Bahr-el-Arab, and stretches in the south to within few day’s march of the Congo “3

4- Slatin Pasha, the Governor of Darfur during the Turkish rule described the extent of the Mahdist state in 1883 “On the west it extended in southwesterly direction through the southern Libyan desert …up to Wadai frontier, and thence southward across the Bahr el Arab through Dar Runga and included Bahr el Ghazal …”4 

5- The Handbook of Sudan , published in 1898, describes the province of Bahr-el-Ghazal as follow : “ Bahr-el-Ghazal : this Mudirieh was vaguely defined, but may be described as enclosing the entire district watered by the southern tributaries of Bahr-el-Arab and Bahr-el-Ghazal Rivers..”5

6- The annual reports of Bahr-el-Ghazal and Kordofan provinces for the years 1902, 1903 , 1904 and 1905 described Bahr-el-Arab (Kir) as the boundary between the said provinces.

7- For a short period between 1902 and 1905 , the Condominium authorities thought wrongly that the Ragaba ez Zarga is Bahr el Arab and the only name of the latter river is Kir.This mistake was due to a misinformation included in the report of the administrator Wilkinson in which he described his journey from El Obeid to Sultan Rob village in 1902. After crossing 166 km from Keilak, he reached Ragaba ez Zarga which he mistakenly identified in his report as Bahr el Arab. After travelling further south, Wilkinson reached another  river , which he was told is  river Kir, and crossed it to sultan Rob’s village or what he called Mareg District.6

8- Without consulting the 19th century documents (available in the writings of of the administrators Gordon, Gessi, Lupton Slatin and other explorers which contains true information about the real Bahr el Arab ) so as to determine the  veracity of Wilkinson’s claim, the Intelligence Office in Khartoum  produced in May 1904  a map which mistakenly portrayed Bahr el Arab too far north.7

9- In December 1904, sub-lieutnant Bayldon travelled from Wau northward and reported that he reached Bahr el Arab in February 1905. 8. He was the first to discover that Wilkinson was wrong to identify the Ragaba ez Zarga as Bahr el Arab.

10- In 1905, lieutenant Comyn explored the area and discovered the mistake of of Wilkinson.He published his findings with a map depicting the actual course of the real Bahr el Arab in the Geographical Journal issue of 1907. 9

11- The findings of lieutenant Comyn were verified by lieutenant Huntley-Walsh who explored Bahr el Arab upstream of sultan Rob’s village in 1906 and confirmed in a report that sultan Rob lived on Bahr el Arab / Kir.10

12- The ABC Experts seized on         Wilkinson’s mistaken identification of Ragba ez Zarga as Bahr el Arab to criticize the government’s position concerning the location of the Ngok settlements before 1905.They argued that the government was misled by Wilkinson’s mistake and assumed that the  people of  Ngok chiefdoms were living south of Bahr el Arab whereas they were actually living south of Ragaba ez Zarga which was the southern  boundaryof Kordofan before 1905. According to the ABC  Experts “ the government’s claim that only the Ngok Dinka territory south of Bahr el Arab was transferred to Kordofan in 1905 is therefore found to be mistaken . It is understandable mistake, given the geographical confusion at the time , but it is based on an incomplete reading of the contemporary administrative record , the full extent of which reveal that the Ragaba ez Zarga /Ngol rather than the river Kir, which is now known as Bahr el Arab, was treated as the province boundary, and that Ngok people were regarded as as part of Bahr el Ghazal province until their transfer in 1905.” 11

13- The Expers’ contention that the full extent of the British administraton’s records “ reveal that the Ragba ez Zarga /Ngol rather than the river Kir, which is now known as Bahr el Arab, was treated as the province boundary …” shows clearly that the experts had indirectly adopted the consequences of Wilkinson’s mistaken assumption ( the favorite preconceived idea of the experts), namely that sultan Rob’s village and Ngok people territory were situated south of  the Ragba ez Zarga and therefore it is  the boundary between Bahr el Ghazal and Kordofan provinces. At the same time, they  criticized the government, which they assumed it agreed with Wilkinson’s belief that the  Ragba ez Zarga is Bahr el Arab and it was  thereby misled to believe that the transferred lands of Ngok chiefdoms were located south of Bahr el Arab whereas they were actually situated south of Ragba ez Zarga which Wilkinson mistook for the Bahr el Arab.

14- The Experts were compelled to follow this reasoning because they were not acquainted with the documented historical fact that the real Bahr el Arab was well known in the late 19th century and was considered by the administrators and explorers of the period as the barrier between the Nilotics and Arabs as well as the boundary between the provinces of Bahr el Ghazal and Kordofan.

15- The ABC Experts had  resorted to this convoluted and implausible reasoning because they failed to employ the method of the historian,which is the appropriate method to solve the historical problem assigned them (to determine the location of the territory of Ngok chiefdoms at a specific date, namely 1905).Since they did not read  the material of the late 19th century explorers and administrators who documented the facts concerning the source and course of Bahr el Arab which they considered as the barrier and boundary between Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal provinces, the ABC Experts were unable to employ these facts as evidence to infer the correct solution to their problem.

16- The ABC Experts employed the method of the mathematician which is based on assumptions. They assumed that the government relied on the mistaken belief of Wilkinson that the Ragba ez Zarga is Bahr el Arab to  claim that the lands of Ngok which were transferred to Kordofan in 1905,  were located south of Bahr el Arab. It never occurred to them that the government’s claim was actually based on the documented historical facts concerning the body of knowledge about the real Bahr el Arab in the 19th century and documented evidence of the contemporary administrators which reveal that the real Bahr el Arab is the the boundary between the provinces of Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal.

17- The ABC Experts were forced to make another assumption to reach their conclusion, namely the implications of Wilkinson’s faulty assumption that sultan Rob’s village was located south of the Ragba ez Zarga before 1905. They were therefore compelled to reach the conclusion of their decision: that the borders of Ngok territory which was transferred to Kordofan in 1905 had extended from the south of Bahr el Arab to the Ragba ez Zarga which is, according to them ,  the boundary between Kordofan and Bahr el Ghazal provinces. It is worth noting that the mathematician, in order to demonstrate the truth of the solution to his problem, make certain assumption which compel him to make others so as to solve it, and this involve appeal to his power of invention ( e.g. Euclid’s proof of the hypothesis that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides.)

18- In order to convince the reader of the truth of his findings, the historian display the grounds upon which his claim to knowledge is based( authentic documented evidence) .  However, since the ABC Experts had employed the method of the mathematician, the grounds upon which their decision is based (that the transferred lands of Ngok extended as far north as Ragba ez Zarga) turn out to be the consequences of Wilkinson’s assumption : that the Ngok people territory which was transferred to Kordofan in 1905 was located south of  the Ragaba ez Zarga.

19- Having abandoned the method of historical research, the ABC Experts had resorted to a method based entirely on assumptions. It is not surprising that the ABC Experts had reached to the invalid ,implausible and frivolous Decision which prescribes that “ The Ngok  have legitimate dominant claim to the territory from Kordofan –Bahr el Ghazal boundary north to latitude 10  10’ N, stretching from the boundary with Darfur to the boundary with Upper Nile , as they were in 1956”. 12.


  * Dr. Amin H. Zainelabdin, independent scholar, former staff member and Head Department of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Khartoum. Published in 2007 “Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement” and in 2009 “Abyei Crisis: Between the International Law and the question of Arbitration”


1-GoS Memorial, p.103
2- 9 Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society (1887) p.285,cited in Ibid.p.104
3-F.Lupton “Geographical Observations in the Bahr el Ghazal Region” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society (1884) p.245; cited in  Ibid.
4- Slatin Pasha, Fire and Sword in the Sudan (1899) cited in Ibid, p.113, footnote 184.
5- Gleichen, Handbook of the Sudan (1898) p.110; cited in  Ibid, p.106
6- GoS Memorial, p.117
7- A. Macdonald,  An Expert Report.para.3.20-3.28
8- G o S Memorial, pp.114-115
9- Ibid.117
10- Ibid, p.118
11- Abyei Commission Report; p.39
12- Ibid, p.21


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