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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

Boundary news Headlines

Disputed border region of Abyei holds referendum to determine potential sovereign alliance with either Sudan or South Sudan

(5 November 2013)

Corrected & updated 8 November 2013

Abyei residents have voted overwhelmingly to join South Sudan in an unofficial referendum.

The referendum, organised by the Dinka Ngok ethnic group, voted to join South Sudan with 99% of the vote. It must be noted that the referendum is not yet official, as both the Misseriya and Dinka Ngok ethnic groups cannot agree on who is eligible to participate. The settled Dinka Ngok have strong ethnic and cultural ties to South Sudan. Conversely, the Sudan allied Misseriya nomads, who regard Abyei as their ancestral homeland and exercise extensive mobility across the unresolved area, were not allowed to vote.

Misseriya chief Mukhtar Babo Nimir informed the AFP media that “no-one in the world will recognise this referendum”, whilst Deng Alor, chairman of the Abyei referendum High Committee, told Reuters media that “the Abyei people have been suffering for a long time. People are marginalised, mistreated and their rights denied. They deserve this day.”

Sudan and South Sudan both declare ownership of Abyei, whose status was unresolved after South Sudan became independent from Sudan in July 2011.

South Sudan acquired independence in July 2011 but the exact border region, approximately 1,250 miles long, is yet to be established. The disputed region is shared amongst two ethnic groups, the settled Ngok Dinka who have strong ethnic and cultural ties to South Sudan, and the nomadic Misseriya, a branch of the Baggara Arabs tribe, who exercise extensive mobility across the unresolved area. A significant river flows through Abyei that is yet to have a common name by both ethnic groups. The contested watercourse is identified by the Ngok Dinka as the Kiir, and Bahr al-Arab by the Misseriya. 

Oil fields contained by the conflicted 4,000 sq. mile region have become a key source of hostility between Sudan and South Sudan. Both states are greatly dependent on their oil proceeds, accounting for 98% of South Sudan’s budget. Disagreement still resides on the distribution of oil wealth in the prior unified state as 75% of oil lies in South Sudan, with pipe lines such as the Greater Nile Oil Line flowing north into Sudan. Such a resource dispute is feared to ignite further conflict between the religious and ethnic divides of the Ngo Dinka and Misseriya.

It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 United Nations Security Council peacekeepers have been deployed to the region by the requirements of the African Union to monitor the referendum situation, having invested “grave concern about the highly volatile situation in the Abyei area”. The region has survived a history of ethnic and religious conflicts including a civil war, in which an estimated 1.5 million people were killed. Mr Zainalabdin, a professor from the University of Khartoum, has warned the referendum “can cause more tension between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya”.

<span >Sources

“From Sydney student life to a Sudanese struggle: a voter’s journey”, Ilya Gridneff, The Guardian, 22nd October 2013.

“Caught Between Sudans, Region Tries to Pick Side”, Isma’il Kushkush, The New York Times, 27th October 2013.

“Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir pledges to resolve Abyei dispute”, BBC News, 28th October 2013.

“Abyei referendum: A threat to peace?”, Al Jazeera, 29th October 2013.

“Abyei opts to join South Sudan in unofficial referendum”, BBC News, 31st October 2013.

“In unofficial vote, residents of contested Abyei region vote to join South Sudan”, The Washington Post, 31st October 2013.