New Onsite Essay: Under the soil, the people

I have an essay out in Onsite 29: Geology; it's about geology, memory, and war. To read the whole thing, you can subscribe to Onsite's digital platform here, but I offer you a slightly different version below:

Under the soil, the people

I.

In June 2012, I saw resplendent herds of cattle along the Sudan-South Sudan border. We toiled together along muddy roads as cloudbursts announced the definitive end of the dry season. The rain seemed to erupt from the very air around me, as if it had grown tired of its liquid burden. It was difficult to see more than five metres ahead.

What I could see were those cows. In Pariang County, on the southern side of the border, one particularly proud herder drove his cows ahead of him, as we slipped and stumbled in the mud. The small brown cows of the Baggara Arabs, out of place in South Sudan and struggling in the rain, mixed with the large black bulls of the Mbororo, their skin slick and glistening, and jostled with the prized cattle of the Nuer, their horns decorated with tassels, and with whom the young cattle-guards stole whispered conversations, as if with illicit lovers.

The history of the border region can be found in a herd’s make-up. Those small brown cows leading the herd were a testament to decades of raiding between border communities, whilst the tasselled cattle told tales of marriage between the Dinka and the Nuer, the two largest groups in South Sudan, both of which use cows for bridewealth.

Cows continually cross lines, both political and geological. 

II.

Captain Percival’s Sketch Map from his 1904 journey through Abyei. Percival was a British officer whose sketch maps were used to make the provincial maps of Bahr el Ghazal province. In December 1904, he proceeded south via Keilak and crossed what he thought was the Bahr el Arab, before fording another river, which he reported to be the Kiir, some fifty miles south. Because the court case this essay deals with was mandated to rule on whether the Abyei Boundaries Commission had exceeded its mandate (to determine the are of the nine Ngok Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905), maps of the period became a crucial source of evidence.

Captain Percival’s Sketch Map from his 1904 journey through Abyei. Percival was a British officer whose sketch maps were used to make the provincial maps of Bahr el Ghazal province. In December 1904, he proceeded south via Keilak and crossed what he thought was the Bahr el Arab, before fording another river, which he reported to be the Kiir, some fifty miles south. Because the court case this essay deals with was mandated to rule on whether the Abyei Boundaries Commission had exceeded its mandate (to determine the are of the nine Ngok Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905), maps of the period became a crucial source of evidence.

The contested border region between Sudan and South Sudan marks the edge of two distinct ecological zones. North of this region, the desert begins. Below, there is the ironstone plateau and lush greenery, fed by South Sudan’s rains. The rainy season lasts four months each year and is often catastrophic, creating floods that sweep away fields and huts. 

On one side of the border, there is too much rain. On the other, not enough.

The border region itself contains open grasslands nourished by a network of rivers that flow longitudinally though the north of South Sudan, and provides vital grazing for the herds of transhumant people in both countries.

For many groups now on the northern side of the disputed border—such as the Mbororo and the Baggara—South Sudan’s independence in 2011 has meant being cut off from crucial grazing land, as state institutions and military check-points replace the complex inter-community grazing agreements that dictated movement in the border region long before there was talk of an international frontier cutting across it.

Sudan achieved independence in 1956. Since then, there has been forty years of war. After a peace agreement was signed in 2005, a fragile peace has prevailed in the border region, continually interrupted by raids and military clashes.

Now, as South Sudan struggles into existence, one of the major challenges both countries face is how to deal with pastoralists groups whose movements in the past have paid scant regard to political borders. Nowhere are these challenges more pressing than in Abyei.

III.

Two groups inhabit Abyei, an area the size of Lebanon whose sovereignty is contested by the two countries. Until May 2011, when the Sudanese army invaded the area, Abyei’s principal inhabitants were the Ngok Dinka, a transhumant group that is part of the larger Dinka people of South Sudan. Every dry season, the Misseriya—a nomadic Arab group that primarily live north of Abyei itself—migrate into the area in search of pastures for their cattle. Meetings between the elders of the two groups would traditionally determine the flexible path of these migrations according to a delicate calculus of ecological conditions and historical ties.

The second civil war changed all that. The Sudanese government tried to defeat the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the principally southern group fighting for the overthrow of the government. It sponsored groups of Misseriya militias that razed Ngok Dinka villages, and consolidated Sudanese control of Abyei’s main oil fields.

In 2005, at the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought Sudan’s twenty-year-long second civil war to an end, Abyei was such a controversial issue that the protocol determining its future was written by the American team at the negotiations, in an effort to break the deadlock.

According to the Abyei Protocol, the extent of the area was to be determined by a committee of international experts (the Abyei Boundaries Commission, or ABC), which was ordered to “determine the area of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905.”

An international dispute, made even more complicated by changing patterns of pastoralist movement in the 21st century, was to be resolved in reference to a colonial decision made at the turn of the 20th.

If only things were so simple.

It is important to look carefully at mandate of the ABC. It assumes that there was an area that was transferred, and that this area is equivalent to the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms. If both these contentions were correct, then the commission’s work would merely be a question of searching the historical archive relating to 1905 for the elusive Ngok Dinka.

But there is no mention of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms in the historical record for 1905. No mention at all. There is talk of the territory of Sultan Rob, as the colonial officers called him (otherwise known as Arop Biong, Chief of the Ngok Dinka), but one must either assume his territory is equivalent to the area of the nine chiefdoms—and, even worse, there is no map of the territory of Sultan Rob—or one must assume that the area that was transferred was not that of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms.

The maps, however, are problematic. Take Percival’s. He reports crossing the Bahr el Arab, and then the Kiir. But the Bahr el Arab is the Arabic name for a river that is known in Dinka (the language of the people of Abyei) as, you guessed it, the Kiir: leaving us no way of knowing which rivers he actually crossed (an error he later acknowledged in 1907). We can assume, as the ABC did, that the references to the Bahr el Arab are actually to the Ragaba ez-Zarga (or the Ngol, as it is known in Dinka), a river to the north of the Kiir, but there are so many tributaries, it is hard to be sure.

The maps, however, are problematic. Take Percival’s. He reports crossing the Bahr el Arab, and then the Kiir. But the Bahr el Arab is the Arabic name for a river that is known in Dinka (the language of the people of Abyei) as, you guessed it, the Kiir: leaving us no way of knowing which rivers he actually crossed (an error he later acknowledged in 1907). We can assume, as the ABC did, that the references to the Bahr el Arab are actually to the Ragaba ez-Zarga (or the Ngol, as it is known in Dinka), a river to the north of the Kiir, but there are so many tributaries, it is hard to be sure.

There are no maps of the transferred territory. The colonial officers responsible for Abyei made only occasional trips to the area, and when they did come, they came during the dry season—the period of Misseriya migration—which meant that their view of the area’s inhabitation was partial at best.

The maps are also full of errors. Captain Percival’s 1904 sketch map, which adorns these pages, details him crossing a river he calls the Bahr el Arab (the river of the Arabs, literally translated), before fording another river, which he calls the Kiir (or ‘river’ in the Dinka language), some forty miles further south. The Bahr el Arab and the Kiir are the Dinka and Arabic names for the same river, leading to no little uncertainty as to Percival’s actual journey.

To make matters worse, it is quite likely that an ‘area’ of land was not transferred at all, but colonial responsibility for a group: the Ngok Dinka, a group that—being transhumant—didn’t even inhabit a strictly delimited area, but rather moved around between camps, alternating between rainy season and dry season grazing sites. 

So on the basis of a colonial transfer of responsibility for a transhumant group, a new international border was to be determined.

The ABC’s report, when it came out, was immediately refused by the Sudanese government, and by the Misseriya, who rightfully feared that if the area of Abyei included their dry season grazing, and was controlled by the Ngok Dinka that they had raided during the second civil war, they would lose access to vital land.

Following an outbreak of violence in the territory in 2008, and with continuing deadlock over the ABC’s report, the dispute over the borders of the area was referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which was mandated to determine whether the ABC had exceeded its mandate, and if it had, to suitably amend the borders of Abyei. 

IV.

A photograph of the accessions register of the Sudan Survey Department from 1905-6. It gives a sense of the slow accumulation of details (and errors) in the colonial record. This, and Percival’s sketch map above, were used by the ABC in their report on Abyei's borders.

A photograph of the accessions register of the Sudan Survey Department from 1905-6. It gives a sense of the slow accumulation of details (and errors) in the colonial record. This, and Percival’s sketch map above, were used by the ABC in their report on Abyei's borders.

In The Hague, corpulent lawyers from Cambridge, representing a Sudanese government that decried the hand of imperialism, insisted that the ABC had exceeded its mandate by considering oral histories. The colonial record, the lawyers of the anti-imperialists argued, was perfectly adequate for understanding the extent of Abyei.

The Cambridge legal team did legal battle with Gary Born, a fiery Yale lawyer, representing the SPLM, who claimed—with some justification—that one can’t determine very much by looking at the patchy colonial archival record and that other sources should be consulted.

The cows, so to speak, took the stand. The territory of the Ngok Dinka, the SPLM lawyers argued, could be determined by reference to geology. Misseriya cows, they claimed, were shaped by different environmental conditions: their short legs, like those of the Baggara cows, could not handle the muddy southern rainy season and its difficult black soil. Ian Cunnison, a veteran ethnographer who could hardly have imagined that his fieldwork—carried out in the 1950s—would be used as evidence in a 21st century court case, took the stand. Dinka cattle, he observes in his work, can “stand mud better” than Misseriya cattle.

It might seem that the SPLM lawyers are the good guys here, arguing for a more encompassing understanding of transhumant habitation, and fighting for a people who have been repeatedly forced off their land by Misseriya militias backed by the Sudanese government. But, as with everything else when it comes to Abyei, things are not so simple.

The SPLM lawyers were arguing for a type of geological determinism, in which soil is not simply fertile ground for agriculture, but the rigid grid from which one can determine which people live where. Under the soil, the people. Though I never thought I would write this, I agreed with the Sudanese government during the arbitration, when it said that soil types, rivers, and mountains, never determine actual boundaries between people.

From Barbour’s The Republic of South Sudan: A Regional Geography (1961, p 150). It indicates the way transhumant movements are not simply lost wanderings, but something more like the path of a boomerang, dictated by the changing seasons.

From Barbour’s The Republic of South Sudan: A Regional Geography (1961, p 150). It indicates the way transhumant movements are not simply lost wanderings, but something more like the path of a boomerang, dictated by the changing seasons.

V.

The PCA was handed a mandate every bit as impossible as the ABC’s. In the end, in what was widely interpreted as a decision intended to placate the Sudanese government, it reduced the area of Abyei, and placed Heglig, the area’s largest oil field, outside the territory.

That was four years ago. I remember listening to the decision in France, having followed the oral pleadings in the Netherlands. Since that day, I have spent most of my life studying and thinking about Abyei. Since then, the territory has endured raids, bombings, and endless political negotiations. The Ngok Dinka remain largely displaced, and the territory’s status is still contested.

The ramifications of the PCA case, though, are more iniquitous than simply the situation in Abyei. All along the Sudan-South Sudan border, communities have begun maximizing their claims to territory, transforming claims to areas of shared rights into claims of exclusive ownership: as if each transhumant group was its own little state.

People make arguments on the basis of geology. This is our soil, I often hear, meaning not simply that it is owned by us, but that we are the only ones who have a right to it, and that our way of life is consonant with the soil.

Up on the Unity State-South Kordofan border, in Pariang County, there are cattle herders, whose herds betray a different history: a history of co-existence that takes place on top of the soil, and isn’t limited by it.