Unilateral Referendum in Contested Oil Producing Abyei Region Overwhelmingly in Favor of Joining South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2013

Ngok Dinka residents of the oil-rich but disputed border territory of Abyei have voted by a margin of more than 99% to join the Bahr al-Ghazal region of South Sudan rather than the South Kordofan region of Sudan in a three-day vote (October 27-29) that defied many predictions by being carried out peacefully and without major disturbances despite being boycotted by the other main ethnic group in the region, the Arab Missiriya tribe. Only 12 voters were reported to have cast a vote to join Sudan in a process to which foreign media were granted full access in order to verify transparency , though no international observers were present (Sudan Tribune, October 31).

(Africa Confidential)

Many Ngok Dinka displaced by attacks by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in May 2008 and May 2011 were reported to have returned home to take part in the vote (Reuters, October 31). The borders of Abyei were redrawn by an international arbitration tribunal in 2009 to neither side’s satisfaction, though the most productive oil fields (the Heglig zone) were separated from a diminished Abyei and attached to Sudan’s South Kordofan province (RFI, July 22, 2009).

The semi-nomadic Missiriya spend much of the year in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan, but rely on the 10,000 square kilometer region of Abyei for dry-season grazing for their herds as part of a centuries-old migratory pattern. The Missiriya include a core of well-armed and experienced fighters who are determined not to allow new borders to interfere with their traditional way of life. Missiriya tribal leader Mukhtar Babo Nimr described the vote as “an illegal process,” adding that “We in the Missiriya tribe are committed to the official position of the Sudanese government…Abyei is a northern land that belongs to Sudan and we are on it and will continue to live there because it is our land” (Reuters, October 31). The Missiriya have promised to hold their own referendum in response to the vote by the Ngok Dinka (Sudan Tribune, October 31). Missiriya militias known as Murahileen have been armed and sponsored by Khartoum since the 1970s, initially as a means of applying pressure on South Sudanese separatists by attacking agricultural communities along the north-south border.

The vote was not supported by either Khartoum or Juba, nor was it recognized by any element of the international community. The vote was initially backed by the African Union, which later withdrew its support over complaints of “obstruction” by Khartoum, which opposed the vote (Reuters, October 29). The referendum was intended to replace a scheduled 2011 vote on Abyei’s future allegiance meant to be coincidental to South Sudan’s vote on independence that was cancelled due to unrest in the region, questions over who would be allowed to vote and tensions between Juba and Khartoum. 65,000 Ngok Dinka were registered for the vote, which was non-binding. The vote was carried out by the Abyei Referendum High Committee.

Abyei’s location in the Muglad Basin once made it one of Sudan’s most productive regions for high-quality oil production, but reserves are now in decline due to intensive production in the 1990s.  The dispute over Abyei’s status dates to 1905, when the Anglo-Egyptian administration of Sudan transferred the “area of the nine Ngok Dinka chieftains” from the southern Bahr al-Ghazal province to the northern province of South Kordofan. Relations between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya were amicable until the outbreak of the 1956-1972 North-South civil war, when the Ngok Dinka sided largely with the southern Anyanya separatist movement. When the conflict resumed in 1983, the Ngok Dinka again sided with the Southern opposition, this time in the form of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Security in Abyei is currently provided by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA), a mostly Ethiopian contingent of over 5300 troops commanded by Ethiopian Major General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam. [1] The force was established by UN Security Council resolution 1990 on June 27, 2011 in response to widespread violence in the region.

Though the results of the unilateral referendum are entirely symbolic, they may help provide the impetus necessary to attract the interest of the UN Security Council in working out a final solution for the disputed territory.


1. For UNIFSA, see http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unisfa/