Sudan's Arab nomads armed to the teeth

2010-10-27 18:01

Al-Muglad, - Abyei, wedged between north and south Sudan, is an oil-rich region at the centre of a perilous dispute between the former civil war enemies.

Its future may be decided by destitute Arab nomads who covet its water.

The Misseriya tribespeople, who believe they are the land's rightful guardians, cannot vote in a January referendum on whether Abyei should join the Muslim, Arab-dominated north or mainly Christian south.

In a dingy office in the village of Al-Muglad, the tribespeoples's chief warns that the Misseriya cannot be ignored. For more than two centuries they have migrated south in the dry season in search of grazing pastures for their herds.

"If I cannot vote, there will be no referendum," said the Misseriya emir Mukhtar Babo Nimir.

The walls of the office, which is used by the intelligence services, are decorated with pictures of Nimir's father and Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.

"We do not want oil, we want water. We have five million cattle. Where are they to drink?" Nimir said.

Squeeze water supply

His tribe fears that the Abyei referendum, which is scheduled to coincide with a vote on independence for the south, will squeeze out their water supply.

The referendum law gave voting rights to the rival Dinka tribesman, who support the south, but not to the Misseriya, who migrate to Bahr al-Arab river - the Kiir river to southerners - every dry season, and who may lose access to the river if Abyei joins the south.

The fate of the flashpoint region, where many southern rebel leaders came from, was left undecided when Juba and Khartoum signed a peace agreement in 2005, ending the 22-year civil war.

After deadly clashes erupted in Abyei three years later, the two sides took the dispute to an international arbitration court in the Hague, which truncated the region, leaving the oil-rich northern and eastern parts in north Sudan.

Khartoum and the semi-autonomous southern government accepted the decision, but the Misseriya did not.

"We and the Dinka lived for 100 years together on our land and now a decision comes out saying this land belongs to the Dinka. Why do they not want us to live with them for another 100 years, why do they tell us to leave our land?" Nimir asked.


US sponsored negotiations are under way to find a solution for the region, and the Misseriya are giving them a chance.

"For now we do not have a problem with water and grassland. But if the negotiations fail, a new chapter will start. We cannot say what will happen," said the emir.

The timing of the Abyei referendum itself is uncertain, with some northern officials saying it must be delayed. Like the southern independence referendum, preparations are behind schedule.

The secretary general of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement this week accused Khartoum of holding the region hostage, using it as leverage to end US sanctions against Sudan and to get concessions from the SPLM.

The SPLM says the region should be ceded to the south, but the Misseriya insist they must be taken into account.

"There are young people who want to fight, they want to invade Abyei, but we do not want a bloodbath," said the emir's brother Sadig Babo Nimir.

"We are armed to the teeth," he added as a warning.