Interview with Douglas Johnson, expert on the Abyei Boundary Commission

Abyei, the area that is home to the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms in central Sudan, was transferred from Bahr El Ghazal Province in south Sudan to Kordofan Province in the north during colonial rule in 1905. For more than two centuries, the area, which straddles the Bahr El Arab River, was used for cattle grazing by the Ngok Dinka and their northern neighbours, the Misseriya Arabs.

The area was a major flashpoint in the first and second north-south civil war, when the dispute was further exacerbated by the discovery of oil.

The sensitivity of the Abyei Area issue was recognised in a special protocol to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in January 2005. This stipulated that in five years, when southern Sudan votes on whether it will become independent, the residents of Abyei will vote on whether they wish to become part of the south or remain in the north.

Under the protocol, the mandate of the Abyei Boundary Commission - composed of five representatives each from the Sudanese government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), as well as five international experts - was to determine the exact border, based on historical records and community testimonies. However, the two sides could not agree, and the final decision fell to the experts.

In July 2005, the experts reached a unanimous decision and drew the boundary further north than the government delegation had anticipated, and further south than the SPLM had hoped for. Although the decision was supposed to be final and binding, the government rejected the findings, and no action has been taken to implement the ruling.

In Rumbek, IRIN spoke with Douglas Johnson, an expert on the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) and author of the book 'The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars', about the implications of the lack of implementation of the commission’s decision. Below are excerpts of the interview.

QUESTION: Why is the Abyei area such a disputed, contentious territory?

ANSWER: There are local reasons and national reasons why this area is so contentious. It is an absolutely essential part of a grazing pattern for a number of pastoralists. These pastoralists include Dinka, but also Baggara Arabs. It is not the only part of that river system which is used by both Baggara Arabs and Dinka, but it is part of the river system that is in Kordofan. Other parts are in Bahr El Ghazal, other parts are in Darfur.

So from the point of view of imposing a new political boundary in that area, it is naturally going to cause concern for people who are going to be on the other side of the boundary. And if they feel that that boundary is a prelude to withdrawing their access and their right of use, they naturally going to resist it.

The CPA is quite explicit that the boundary will have no effect on the rights of any group of people who are already having access to that area. It will not infringe their rights; they will still have access to it.

The other aspect is that the Abyei area is contained within one of the oil blocks, and there has been quite a lot of exploration and drilling of oil wells in the area. Now, we were not shown a map of where these oil wells were. We were told our mandate was to define the area in 1905 - of course there were no oil wells in 1905. There was no mechanised farming; there was no railway; there were no towns. If we had taken into consideration these developments since 1905, we would have been violating our mandate.

But there is a lot of oil there - the Abyei Protocol stipulates that the oil revenues that come from the sale of oil in the Abyei area be divided between the Misseriya and the Ngok Dinka, the government and the SPLM. If the boundary is defined one way, it puts quite a lot of oil in the Abyei area, and therefore more of that oil revenue has to be shared. If we had accepted the government's claim that the boundary was the river, there would have been no oil revenue to share.

The other thing is that if the boundary defines a certain area and that area contains oil and active oil wells, [and] if the people of Abyei vote in a referendum to join the south and the south votes to become independent, then that oil becomes southern oil and is not northern oil.

Q: What has happened since the ABC submitted their report to the Sudanese presidency in July last year?

A: We submitted the report to the presidency on 14 July; that was a few days after John Garang [the late leader of the SPLM] was sworn in as first vice-president.

There were two different interpretations of it. On the one hand, the leader of the government delegation said we had presented recommendations, which would be studied. On the other hand, the leader of the SPLM delegation said we had in fact given a final and binding decision, which would have to be implemented.

At the beginning of our deliberations, before we went to the field, our chairman said to the chairman of the government delegation that we hoped there might be compromise that would be just and equitable to both sides. He was told that there could be no compromise. The government could not compromise over its control of land, and if there was any attempt at that, we risked going back to war.

We were presented with a situation that was very difficult to deal with. There was no possibility of persuading the two sides to compromise on their positions, and all we could do was treat what they presented us as evidence to be compared with other evidence, for us to come up with a decision.

After we presented our report, there was something that happened which I now think was a mistake. The SPLM went back to the Ngok Dinka and explained the report, and the government went to the Misseriya and explained their version of the report. What should have happened was that the two delegations and the experts should have met with the communities either individually or collectively and explained the report, so there was no doubt about what the report contained.

According to the Arabic press reports I saw, the government delegation, in explaining the commission report to the Misseriya in Khartoum, said the experts had exceeded their mandate and, therefore, what we had said was not correct. They also claimed that we were allocating to the Ngok Dinka territory that we had not allocated. They claimed that we gave them territory as far north as Lake Kalak, on the border of the Nuba Mountains, which again was not correct. And then the Misseriya quite naturally objected to this and said they refused to accept the report.

You can understand to a certain extent the reaction of the Misseriya, because they were not fully represented in the government delegation. The delegation included Misseriya Humr, but they did not include anybody from the central lineage of the Misseriya Humr - of the family of the paramount, of the emir.

One of the reasons it didn’t was that during the negotiations in Kenya over Abyei, when the government brought their first negotiating delegation, they included the emir of the Misseriya, Muktar Babel Nimr. He had a private meeting with the Ngok Dinka and the SPLM delegation and made it clear to them that he was not disputing the Ngok Dinka claim to the territory they lived in, nor was he trying to claim this territory for himself. He said, We do not dispute that this is your land. What we don't want, and what we do dispute, is you taking it to Bahr El Ghazal [in south Sudan].

This is certainly a reasonable fear on the part of the Misseriya, and if they had been part of a negotiating delegation, the arrangements over Abyei might have come out somewhat differently.

When the government delegation to the talks in Karen [a suburb of Nairobi] heard what Muktar Babel Nimr had said to the SPLM, they sent him back to Nairobi and said he either towed the government line or he would be dismissed. He said he would say nothing in that case. So there was a matter of a certain amount of dissent within the Misseriya, which the government was very active in trying to prevent us to hear.

The SPLM has been undertaking a programme of explaining the Abyei Protocol and the boundary report and are showing the map that comes with the boundary report in public meetings. They have done that in Juba, in Khartoum, in Abyei and some other places, where members of the SPLM delegation to the boundary commission come and explain [the report] in Arabic or in English. Because so many misrepresentations have been made about the report, people who have seen the map have been surprised that the boundary is as far south as it is, because they have been given the impression that a large chunk of Misseriya territory has been seized by the experts, or by the SPLM, or by the Dinka.

So we now have a situation where the commission's report has not been implemented. As a result, no Abyei executive committee has been set up to administer the area.

Q: A number of observers have claimed that the area of Abyei is a potential flashpoint that might hamper the implementation of the CPA. Is it really that serious?

A: I believe that is true. It has to do with a number of things. One, both sides signed up to it. They signed up to the protocol; they signed up to agreeing to accept the boundary commission report; they signed up to an immediate application of the boundary commission, and to setting up the Abyei executive committee.

If they now are not going to do that - if one side is refusing to implement an agreement that it has signed - it throws into doubt their commitment to the whole of the CPA. If one side is allowed to choose what part of the CPA they implement, then the other side may wish to choose what part of the CPA they implement, and then the CPA becomes full of holes and is a worthless document. It is either implemented in full, or it is discarded.

The other issue is that there are a number of things that have happened in Abyei that have since happened in Darfur: the mobilisation along alleged tribal lines, the use of militia to fight a war over land use, over the retention of resources. If the Abyei Protocol cannot be implemented, what possibility is there for a Darfur agreement that must address the same types of problems? What hope is there for that to be implemented?

A third thing is that when the [entire] north-south boundary is defined, and if the referendum takes place, and if the south votes to become independent, there are a number of places along that boundary that will be similarly contested by northern and southern groups of pastoralists, because you have northern pastoralists moving south of that boundary every year.

The Misseriya are the only northern group who are mentioned by name in the CPA as having an explicit right to use the resources of that area and to cross the boundary. Now, they are actually being put in a privileged position. That sort of right is going to have to be written into any boundary agreement between the north and the south, whether or not the south becomes independent.

Finally, if there is going to be this amount of trouble over the Abyei boundary, what hope is there for the [rest of the] north-south boundary being demarcated and agreed?

There are many remaining border disputes. One is the Hofre Nahas area; part of Bahr El Ghazal that was transferred to Darfur in the 1960s, which, by the terms of the CPA, and even by the terms of the Addis Ababa Agreement [which ended the first civil war] before, is supposed to be retransferred to Bahr El Ghazal.

There is the whole of the boundary of the oil fields in Western Upper Nile [Unity State], which will have to be agreed; in the Bentiu area, the Manquien area, the Pariang area, all of that area which borders Southern Kordofan. Although there is clearly a line on the map that shows this is part of the south, there are already indications that some people at least in the government wish to dispute that.

Along the rest of the Upper Nile [State] boundary, for that boundary that goes along the Nile and flows down towards [the town of] Renk, there are a number of areas on either side, where bits of Upper Nile have been surreptitiously transferred to neighbouring northern states for the establishment of farming schemes, etc, which are leased by the government to various people. The existence of these farming schemes may be used as an excuse to say, well this is really part of Kordofan or White Nile State and not part of the Upper Nile, so there is a way in which that is being eroded.

And then when you get to that part of Upper Nile that borders Blue Nile and goes down to Ethiopia, there are oil fields and gas fields there, and there could be a dispute over the boundary. The one thing that might protect that is that if the boundary is disputed there, that only gives it over to Blue Nile State [which] has a government shared between the SPLM and the NCP [National Congress party, the ruling party in north Sudan], so that might be a more difficult thing to annex to the north.

There is a boundary commission that is supposed to be established [under the CPA], which is supposed to demarcate the [remainder of the north-south] border, but it has not yet been established.

Theoretically, it should be an easier job, because there are records - or there should be records - of the demarcation of the province boundaries under the British, before 1956. It is an archival job, theoretically, to locate those boundary markers that were put down at some point and then to redefine them and to survey the whole boundary and put in new markers. Theoretically, that is a more simple position, but given our difficulties over the Abyei boundary, and given our experience in the national survey authority, I think it is not going to be all that straightforward.

Abyei Boundaries Commission Final Report is available at: