Abyei: Microcosm of the Sudanese struggle for national identity

This post is part of the Pulitzer Center reporting project Sudan In Transition: Examining Sudan’s 2011 Secession Referendum.

By Rebecca Hamilton

General Mahdi Babo Nimir, a wiry 78-year-old, straightened up the framed, photocopied photo of his father on his lounge room wall. Opposite his father’s photograph hangs a portrait of his grandfather, in full riding regalia, complete with plumed helmet, painted in the era of the British rule of Sudan.


General Mahdi Babo Nimir hangs a portrait of his father.

Photo by Rebecca Hamilton

Nimir was born in Sudan’s north-south border area of Abyei. His father and grandfather were paramount chiefs of the Misseriya people, a nomadic Arab group in the area. And today the chieftaincy belongs to his brother, Sadig Nimir. Babo Nimir invited me to Abyei “to see with your own eyes” the situation there.

However, the Sudanese government’s unofficial, yet watertight, ban on foreign journalists traveling out of Khartoum right now prevented me from taking up the offer. Instead, we had a long interview over multiple cups of tea at Nimir’s expansive Khartoum home.

Abyei is an area that may well become as familiar to outsiders as Darfur has in recent years.

Abyei is an area that may well become as familiar to outsiders as Darfur has in recent years, because if a 2005 peace deal between the southern-based Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) fails in the coming months, Abyei is likely to be the trigger.

The reason often cited for Abyei’s high risk status is that it is near significant oil reserves. The drafters of the 2005 peace deal could not agree on whether Abyei was part of northern or southern Sudan, and so punted the decision forward for the people of Abyei to decide in a referendum, to be held at the same time as a referendum for southern Sudanese on whether they want to become an independent nation. The Abyei Referendum would therefore dictate whether oil in the Abyei area went to the north or the south if the southerners voted to secede.

However since the 2005 peace deal was signed, the borders of Abyei have been defined by an international arbitration decision, which placed the major Heglig and Bamboo oilfields outside of Abyei itself. If oil was the only issue, then the arbitration decision could have taken some of the heat off the Abyei area. But tensions in Abyei come from multiple sources, and those that may become the most significant are more localized in nature than any high-level dispute between the SPLM and the NCP.

Carefully calibrated cooperation

Sudanese scholar, Francis Deng, has described Abyei as a microcosm of the Sudanese struggle for a national identity, with nomadic northern Misseriya and southern Ngok Dinka farmers negotiating their co-existence in the area. In the era of Nimir’s grandfather, and even father, carefully calibrated cooperation between the two groups was high, and the narrative of peaceful coexistence in this period is still regaled proudly by many ordinary Sudanese today.

Since this idealized period, national politics have complicated matters. Talk to any SPLM member and they will tell you that the ruling NCP is biased in favor of the Misseriya. “Today they are standing with the Misseriya, against the Ngok Dinka,” says Edward Lino, SPLM member and former administrator of Abyei.

Lino also says that “the Misseriya have nothing to do with the Abyei problem” and argues that they have no right to vote in the Abyei referendum because they are not residents of Abyei, but just come to the area to graze their livestock. (The legislation on the Abyei Referendum passed by the Sudanese parliament at the end of 2009 specified that the Ngok Dinka would get to vote, but rather than specifying the Misseriya, it referred to “other Sudanese residing in Abyei area.”)

“The Misseriya are just compost”

Lino’s words are responded to with indignation by Nimir, who believes that far from supporting the Misseriya, the NCP have abandoned them. “The Misseriya are just compost. Since the negotiations [for the 2005 peace agreement] in Naivasha, the Misseriya have been compost. Nobody asks the Misseriya. The NCP did everything by proxy.”

Moreover, he turns the notion of the Misseriya as seasonal visitors to Abyei on its head. According to Nimir, it was his grandfather who was good friends with the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka, that established visitation rights for Dinka farmers. “He told them, ‘You have to stay south of the river, but in rainy season you can move to the north for agriculture. Then when you have harvested you go back to the south and stay there.'”

Nimir carefully takes me through the pages of A Sudan Sunset, a book written by one of the last British administrators in the Abyei area, pointing to hand-drawn maps that he says show how long the Misseriya have been present in the Abyei area. Next, he takes out a notebook in which he has transcribed, by hand, the opinion of the dissenting judge in the international arbitration decision on Abyei’s borders. “Who gave the Tribunal the right to reduce the Misseriya to second class citizens in their own land,” he reads out from the judges’ opinion.

“We don’t want to fight with the Ngok Dinka. We want to sit down with them as our fathers did.”

Through the course of the afternoon the aging General flits between bellicose and conciliatory. “We will go to war because we feel our rights have been taken from us by force and the NCP didn’t stand with us and left us alone,” he says, before backtracking as he looks to the pictures on his walls and reminisces about the old days. “We don’t want to fight with the Ngok Dinka. We want to sit down with them as our fathers did. . . please, tell them, let the politicians leave us alone.”


Rebecca Hamilton is a Special Correspondent on Sudan for The Washington Post. She has written up her multi-year investigation into the impact of advocacy on Darfur policy in Fighting for Darfur, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2011. In recent years she has conducted over 150 interviews with policy-makers on Sudan within the previous and current U.S. administration, the UN, and the Arab League. She has interviewed those deployed to Sudan with the African Union, and spoken with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the atrocities in Darfur. In partnership with the National Security Archives she has obtained the declassification of 600 cables related to U.S. policy on Sudan. Her writing has been published in a range of outlets including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Newsweek and The International Herald Tribune. She is currently reporting from Sudan for the Pulitzer Center reporting project Sudan In Transition: Examining Sudan’s 2011 Secession Referendum. Her reports are published by Nat Geo News Watch courtesy of the Pulitzer center.

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn