PART FOUR: HOW ABYEI GOT MARGINALIZED
Bol knew that I was in the country. The fact that a message on Abyei would go to him without my name concerned him. So he came promptly. It was not easy to persuade him for us to go home and try to reconcile and unify the family and the tribe. But I eventually succeeded. We went home. The experience was ironically both challenging and elating. The idea of reconciling was unfathomable to some members of the family and the tribe. Deng Aguer was now entrenched as the head administrator. We worked day and night for days on end until our efforts were blessed with spectacular success. Uncle Deng Abot blessed the agreement with powerful spiritual words that sounded Biblical. It was a most moving performance that is impossible to describe. It almost brought tears to my eyes.
We know that there were strong forces against chieftaincy. Those voices are still vocal today. What did you do to restore chieftaincy?
Francis Mading Deng
The issue of Chieftaincy was very contentious as the views of our people were also divided, not only on the restoration of the position of Paramount Chief, but also on the choice among the sons of Deng Majok. The predominant position among the Ngok Dinka was that the position of tge Chief was critical to the social order. Folktales are replete with the theme of a community getting shattered by the killing of the Chief in battle, the crucial line being, “What can one do in a community in which the Chief is killed”. In my interviews of leading Dinka Chiefs in 1973 in the first anniversary of the Addis Ababa, the theme of the vital role of the Chief was pervasive. I was able to convince the government about this fact. Once the government agreed, critics of the institution among the Ngok Dinka who were motivated by opposition to the family and were working with the hostile government security became silent.
On the choice among the sons of Deng Majok, I thought of Ali as the most qualified by virtue of age and experience in the police service. But he was opposed on the ground of being Adam’s sibling brother, even though he had sided with the family against his own brother. People insisted on one of two much younger sons from Abdalla Moyak’s section of the family, Kuol Adol and Bulabek. These two were in my view too young as they were still in intermediate school. I also thought that it was not only unfair to Ali, but incongruent to the unity and reconciliation that we had just achieved. But I was persuaded that my position might be misunderstood as favoring Ali because he belonged to my section of the family. So, I gave in and supported the choice of the people, which ended with Kuol Adol.
As I would repeatedly confess over the years, I was delighted that I was overruled as Kuol Adol rose to the task with exceptional success. He applied his own leadership style that combined humility with intelligence, dedication to the service, and courage in dealing with a most challenging situation that was fraught with formidable risks. He and I developed very close working relationship in which he was a leader guided by the advice of his elders.
Did President Nimeiri honor his decision to support the autonomous development of Abyei under his direct supervision?
Francis Mading Deng.
He did. In fact, during the second anniversary of the Addis Ababa Agreement that was celebrated in Kadugli, Mansour Khalid and I included in the President’s speech a strongly worded reiteration of his policy for the development of Abyei. He referred to Abyei as the area where ‘the great Dinka and Missiriya tribes meet’. He said he would oversee the implementation of the project himself.
I was still Ambassador in Scandinavia. Nimeiri decided that I needed to reconnect with the people at home and literally ordered me to go to Abyei and spend a week in the area. He instructed the Commissioner (Governor) of Southern Kordofan to provide security and logistical support for my field trip. I invited our brother Dr. Zackariah Bol to join me and we spent a very enjoyable reorientation to our area.
While in Scandinavia, I remained in contact with HIID to develop our partnership in the implementation of the project. We agreed to approach the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, for funding. The process would take time and come into full fruition when
I was appointed Ambassador to Washington after two years in Scandinavia. Two years later, I became minister of state for foreign affairs and was then in an even more influential position to follow the developments in Abyei and to influence the government on the security situation, including the ongoing hostilities between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya.
It is clear that you were making a big difference in improving the attitude of the government toward the area of Abyei. But relations between the Ngok Dinka and the Missiriya were still hostile. When you were back home as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, were you involved in managing the Dinka-Missiriya conflict?
A Foreign Minister with tribal concerns
I certainly was. I remained a minister for foreign affairs deeply entrenched in tribal affairs. One specific instance of my involvement was the 1977 hostilities in which the Missiriya attacked lorries carrying Ngok Dinka passengers going back home, and massacred nearly two hundred people, including Majok Abiem, a London University PhD student. The national security council met to consider the situation. My senior minister, who was a member of the security council, was traveling abroad. As the acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, I was invited to attend the meeting. President Nimeiri was also traveling abroad and the First Vice President, General Mohamed El-Baghir, chaired the meeting of the Security Council.
The council decided to send the Southern Kordofan Political Supervisor, who was a member of the national security council, to visit the area. I objected on the ground that the Ngok Dinka considered him a party to the conflict as he was perceived as siding with the Missiriya. That provoked an angry reaction from the members of the council who objected to my accusing a national leader of being partial in a tribal conflict. I was myself quite emotional about the issue and held my ground. I accused them of burying their heads in the sand. In the end, First Vice President El-Baghir offered to go himself. People objected on security grounds, but he insisted.
He waited for the return of the President before making the visit. He invited me to accompany him on the visit to the area. In Abyei, El-Baghir was met with a very hostile reaction, with the Dinka arguing that the army was siding with the Missiriya and that he himself was part of the army. They told him to go back and return to confront the Dinka with his army. That offended the Vice President, but he also appreciated the grievances behind the allegation. We also went to Muglad and met with traditional leaders. Although I did not speak in Abyei, I spoke in Muglad about the grievances of the Ngok Dinka against the Missiriya. I spoke about the policy for the autonomous administration of Abyei. Paramount Chief Babo Nimir responded that the Ngok Dinka deserved the same right given Southern Sudanese to govern themselves. El-Baghir was so moved by the experience that he later said to me that he would be happy to be mandated to focus on the Abyei situation and that it would also be in the best interest of the country to assign me to concentrate on Abyei instead of foreign affairs.
Unfortunately, General El-Baghir was removed from his position shortly afterwards and the Ngok Dinka suspected, I believe wrongly, that it had to do with his sympathy for their cause.. Abdelrahman Abdalla, Minister of Public Service, was tasked to chair the Dinka-Missiriya peace talks and I was asked to assist him. It was a difficult assignment. As soon as I got to Kadugli where the talks took place, I noticed that three prominent Ngok leaders were not in the Dinka delegation. I soon learned that they were left out because they were considered to be agents of the Missiriya. I immediately asked Justin Deng Aguer to have them flown to Kadugli on the ground that I wanted to meet with them on an urgent matter without letting them know that I planned to have them join the Ngok Dinka delegation.
They came, but the Ngok delegation objected to their joining. It took me all night to the early hours of the morning to persuade them. Even that was only possible because I persuaded Uncle Deng Abot, who was initially too ill to attend the meeting, to intervene and add his voice to my position. Deference to his position as an elder and his ailing condition made the difference. Justin Deng Aguer also sided with me. Remarkably, the Missiriya delegation objected to the three individuals joining the Ngok delegation on the grounds that they had taken oath to be on their side. They were strongly rebuked by the chairman and the Province Commissioner for their unreasonable demand. One of the three elders later approached me to ask whether it was a crime to change position contrary to the oath they had taken. I assured him that it was not a crime. Those three would prove to be most effective in presenting the case of the Dinka against the Arabs.
My position in the talks remained highly sensitive and precarious. There was no question that I was deeply committed to the cause of justice for the Ngok Dinka, but I wanted to be fair and objective, and to be seen that way. But that was a very difficult balance to achieve. The Missiriya did not trust my neutrality and the Ngok Dinka were uncomfortable with my intermediary role. One person openly asked me to step aside and allow them to confront the Missiriya directly. The chiefs of other Northern tribes who were the mediators, Ajaweed, also complained that I had usurped their role and made them redundant. During my years as State Minister, my persistent pursuit to the cause of the Ngok Dinka in the central government always put me in a very challenging position as minister for foreign affairs preoccupied with local issues. I was often teased by my colleagues, some of whom wondered whether I was minister of State for Foreign affairs or for tribal affairs.
What made my task extremely difficult was that although I had a very cordial relationship with the President, the central government was siding with the state authorities who were in alliance with the Missiriya. The regional government of South Sudan was virtually out of the picture on the case of Abyei
Abyei between a hostile center and a helpless Southern regional government
It is amazing what you went through in dealing with a center that was hostile to the cause of the Ngok Dinka and a Southern Sudanese regional government that was either indifferent or helpless.. I really don’t think that many of our people know the difficulties you dealt with. And I think they should know how deeply rooted your commitment to your people was. And you were doing all this without the regional government of Southern Sudan getting involved on behalf of the people of Abyei.
Francis Mading Deng
I must say that I never really blamed the regional government because they were managing their own situation delicately with the central government. What must be underscored here is that it was not only Abel Alier who did not want to confront Khartoum over Abyei. When Joseph Lagu was strongly supported by the Ngok Community in the South, it was because they believed that he would find a solution to the problem of Abyei. But shortly after taking over the leadership of the South, Lagu confided to me that the North believed that Abel Alier was the only Southern Sudanese leader they trusted to ensure the unity of the country. He wanted to assure them that he too was for unity. For that reason, he told me that he would not raise the issue of Abyei with the central government for at least three years.
Dr. Zackariah Bol and I had agreed to divide roles; that I would remain in Khartoum to pursue the interest of Abyei at the centre and he would serve in the Southern regional government to promote our cause in the South. Bol had supported Lagu in the elections, and was then the Deputy Speaker of the Assembly. When I shared with him what Lagu had told me he was enraged and said that they would work to unseat him. And indeed they withdrew their support from him and helped vote Alier back into power. But the situation of Abyei remained the same.
And yet, the popular view in the Southern Sudan at the time was that I was the one keeping Abyei in the North. Even in 1973, when I interviewed the chiefs, there were individuals who insinuated this suspicion. Leading members of the Southern government, among them Samuel Aruw Bol and Clement Umboro, talked to me quite candidly about this suspicion. After I explained the situation my position, they always apologized and endorsed my approach of winning the cooperation of the central government on Abyei. They then understood and supported the efforts I was exerting to alleviate the suffering of our people. Ironically, the opponents of our family in Abyei told the South that it was our family through me that was keeping Abyei in the North and told the North that it was our family through Bol that was trying to take Abyei to the South. Fortunately, the leadership on both sides knew the facts.
. …To be continued.
Click the link to read PART THRREE The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily
Click the link to read PART TWO The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily
Click the link to read PART ONE The Contributions of Dr. Francis Mading Deng to South Sudan and Abyei – One Citizen Daily