|Both the African Dinka and Arab Misseriya tribes say Abyei belongs to them [EPA]|
Abyei has long been Sudan’s cultural bridge linking the African south of the country to the Arab north.
A region located on the boundary between northern and southern Sudan, its abundant water and fertile pasture grounds have been shared by herds belonging to the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya Baggara tribes.
The Misseriya Baggara are cattle-herding Arabs who survive by chasing rainfalls in the vast savannahs of central Sudan. For the last two centuries they have made their dry season camps in Abyei.
A Misseriya tribal leader told Al Jazeera that his people have never missed this annual trek to the south.
“They call it the winter journey. Since the time they came to this land some centuries ago … their destination of legend is Bahr Al-Arab, or the Sea of Arabs,” he says.
But this name is bitterly contested by the African ethnic Ngok Dinka tribe who live in this area year round.
They call it the River Kir and claim Abyei as their exclusive homeland; they say they settled the fertile area before the Arabs and consider the Misseriya to be guests with no equal rights to the land.
“I have proof this is my land,” a Dinka cattle herder said.
“My grandfather had a hut in this area. The Misseriya used to come here, but only to graze their cattle and then return to the north. They know this is not their land.”
The dispute over identity and who controls Abyei spilled over into Sudan’s 22-year civil war.
In addition to its water and agricultural wealth, Abyei is believed to be rich in oil reserves making it much sought after by both the north and the south.
In 1983, war broke out when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), based in southern Sudan, accused the central government in Khartoum, the capital, of reneging on previous autonomy agreements.
Despite the change of government and a coup in Khartoum, the war continued until 2005 when the SPLA and Khartoum signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
The agreement is considered historic not only for ending the 22-year-long conflict, which killed some two million people and displaced millions, but also for introducing the promise of concrete socio-political solutions for the north-south rift.
The agreements and protocols which make up the CPA were intended to address the root causes of Sudan’s civil war: contentious issues of race, culture, religion, identity, power, and control of natural resources, in particular, oil.
The status and borders of Abyei were among the most sensitive issues left undecided.
Both the north and south want control of oil installations north of Abyei town, run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by CNPC of China, the main oil group operating in the Abyei area.
For a long time administratively part of northern Sudan, Abyei had been given special status in the peace agreement – by which it is now a political island in Sudan, attached neither to the north or the south – pending implementation of the peace agreement on its final status.
Under the mandate of the CPA, the Abyei Boundary Commission was established to determine the exact borders of Abyei.
The commission was comprised of five representatives each from the Sudanese government and southern factions, as well as five international experts who studied historical and community records.
However, efforts to reach a settlement since 2005 have failed and northern and southern forces have already clashed over Abyei a number of times, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
Clashes over the area displaced some 50,000 and left at least 100 people dead in 2008.
Khartoum disputes demarcation
|The Dinka and Misseriya tribes have disputed claims over the grazing grounds in Abyei [EPA]|
In a major shock to Khartoum, a panel of foreign experts charged with defining the historic boundaries of the Abyei area drew them to include nearly all of northern Sudan’s proven oilfields.
Khartoum disputed the findings and both sides later referred the issue to an Abyei Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague and promised to accept its decision.
Now, that international court has redrawn the Abyei region’s borders to give the Khartoum government control of the Heglig oilfields and the Nile oil pipeline.
Former rebels in the south have also pledged to abide by the ruling.
The boundary dispute is important because under the treaties agreed in the CPA, Abyei will hold a referendum in 2011 on whether to retain special status within north Sudan, or join the south, where a simultaneous vote will be held on independence.
If southern Sudan votes for independence in 2011, and the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal had backed the ABC’s initial ruling, then Abyei – and its oilfields – would probably have gone with it.
Misseriya Arabs, though, say such a scenario would be the loss of a nation.
“The Misseriya are one million people and ten million cows. If anyone ever tells us we can’t go to Bahr Al Arab, it will mean our death. Poverty is death,” a Misseriya tribal chief said.
“Our cows will perish and we will be beggars. That’s why I cannot give up Abyei.”