Amid the good news of a smooth and peaceful voter registration process in Sudan ahead of the January 9 referendum in the south, an issue of major concern went almost unnoticed.
No single person in the flashpoint region of Abyei has registered yet for the other referendum on the future of that region.
Abyei remained in limbo. Negotiations between north and south leaderships about solutions are leading nowhere so far.
The Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has launched a massive return campaign for Abyei citizens exiled in Khartoum.
But on the ground the status quo remains as it was since the summer of 2008 when the two armies clashed and the main capital town of Abiey went on fire.
There’s a shaky truce and the joint force assigned to oversee law and order is barely functioning.
Abyei is an oil rich area in central Sudan straddling the 1956 colonial border between north and south.
True to its geographic position it hosts two major tribes, the Dinka Ngok of black African descent whose loyalty goes naturally to Southern Sudan, and the Missirya Arabs who belong north.
The problem is that the Dinka are rather sedentary farmers while the Missiriya are roving nomads.
The Dinka thus permanently live in Abyei while the Missiriya move in and out of it, depending on seasonal changes, as they drive their livestock in search of water and grass.
By modern standards the Dinka look more set to claim ownership of the land because they have a certain level of infrastructure on the ground, such as farms and villages and water wells.
The Missiriya concept of land ownership is different. Even in the north, Arab tribes do not have permanent structures or any concrete form of real estate.
They believe that the land belongs to all. Their idea of homeland hinges on frequent common use, not on individual land grab and exclusive entitlement or monopoly of a specific piece of territory.
The claims and counter claims between Missirya and Dinka with regard to who has more rights to be a citizen of Abyei are therefore useless and rather irrelevant.
The Missiriya would show you scores of administrative documents and historical testimonies by European explores supporting their claim over Abyei.
Those documents tend to suggest that the Missirya Arabs came to Abyei from the north before the Dinka Ngok arrived there from the south. On the other hand, the Dinka Ngok claim they have at least one document that proves the opposite.
It’s a long and complicated discussion that never seems to lead anywhere.
The two tribes, one Arab and Muslim, while the other black African and with mixed religious affiliations (Islam, Christianity and traditional tribal beliefs) had fought each on occasion in the past.
They naturally clashed over temporary use of water and grazing land.
Tension rose between the two sides in a much more articulated manner during the second phase of the north-south civil war, during the 1980s.
That was actually before any oil was extracted from the area. Thousands of southerners fled to Khartoum seeking refuge. But the town of Abyei never really faced a horrible destruction comparable to what happened in May 2008.
But if we look at the facts on the ground, we find that despite the occasional tensions, the two tribes do coexist in the area and have been coexisting for centuries.
Why is it that suddenly they have to completely drive out one another from the land?
It’s a sorry political question that many ascribe to the emerging national interests of the two future states that may come to existence after the January 9 referendum.
Abyei contains some of the biggest oil fields in central Sudan. So oil is the crux of the matter according to many observers.
Race and tribe are allegedly being used by the two rival governments to instead serve an economic goal.
If you ask the people in Abyei, both the Dinka Ngok and the Missirya Arabs would express their anger and would clearly tell you that they know they are being manipulated.
Right now, and as the countdown for the referendum begins, the danger of the Abyei crisis looms large and threatening.
The north-south peace agreement stipulates that alongside the referendum in the south, the inhabitants of Abyei should be given a chance to choose whether to join the south or remain part of the north.
But the two sides could not agree on the borders of Abyei or on who are the citizens of Abyei.
The south insists that the Missirya Arabs should be excluded from the vote, while the north wants them to be registered and to be able to vote. Thus no registration has taken place.
And until now, no kind of polling facility has been set up there.
If the referendum in the south goes ahead and the south secedes without resolving the conflict over Abyei, that will be a recipe for disaster.
The Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement feel they have the backing of Washington and are thus in a position of strength.
They want the land, the oil and they want the Arabs of Missiriya to be excluded.
This is dangerous considering that the north is already bitter about the loss of more than a third of the county’s territory.
To add to that the loss of an oil-rich region that used to be part of the north and that is inhabited by Arab tribes along with southerners is going to be difficult to stomach in Khartoum.
This is why those who might be enthusiastic about the emergence of an independent state in southern Sudan should open their eyes to the dangers of a war that could indeed mar the happy dream of such a state.
Likewise, Khartoum should make sure it doesn’t lose the south and at the same time plunge its population into the hell of a new war.
It was the discovery of oil in the 1980s that made the prospect of peace between north and south enticing.
The two warring sides decided to share the benefits instead of fighting over them. Now they must seek similar solutions in Abyei.
Otherwise, the consequences are all too familiar to both.