chapter  4
4 Pages

Introduction, 1977

The Ngok Dinka of Abyei (their administrative headquarters) live in an anomalous situation with remarkable cross-cultural complexities and challenges. Administered as part of Southern Kordofan, and bordering Bahr alGhazal and Upper Nile Provinces, under whose jurisdiction the bulk of the Dinka fall, the Ngok area can properly be described as a microcosm of the Sudan, drawing from both sides for its character; suffering from the tensions and conflicts of their confrontation, yet bridging them and sometimes mediating between them. Despite centuries of contact and the adoption, adaptation, and assimilation

of certain northern cultural traits, the Ngok have remained distinctly Dinka and in some respects more so than their brethren farther South. They depend on the southern Dinka for current dance, song, dress, and language styles of traditional society, but have always combined them with their own classical dances, songs, and what in many parts of the southern Dinka is an archaic dialect of the language. It is easy to theorize that, placed at the point of contact with the outside world and confronting a civilization which at one time was universalizing, their instinct for cultural self-preservation has been commensurate with the threats of inequitable assimilation. This book is a by-product of a larger project, from which two volumes have

already resulted. The first, Africans of Two Worlds: The Dinka in Afro-Arab Sudan, published by Yale University Press in 1978, is an analytical presentation of materials collected in intensive and extensive interviews with chiefs and elders from virtually all major sections of the Dinka. The second, Dinka Cosmology, published by Ithaca Press in 1980, contains the translations of interviews themselves with hardly any editorial interference. Because of the peculiarities of the Ngok Dinka situation, I initially inclu-

ded a chapter in Africans of Two Worlds focusing on the significance of the Ngok area as a microcosm of the North-South political map, but I subsequently felt that the chapter had a different flavor and uniqueness that interfered with the flow of the material from the other interviews. I therefore concluded that it would be better to publish this chapter in a separate volume that would remain part of the overall Dinka experience and especially the theme of North-South relations, which particularly preoccupied the

interviewed chiefs and elders. So, while some quotations from the Ngok Dinka appear in Africans of Two Worlds and some passages from the nonNgok interviews are quoted here, the present volume, Frontiers of Unity, is the outcome of this separation. But while Africans of Two Worlds comprehensively covers the past, starting with the myths of creation, tracing it to more recent interaction with the non-Dinka world, and extending into the current problems of nation-building, the analytical parts of Frontiers of Unity focus on the later themes, especially as they relate to the anomalous situation of the Ngok Dinka in North-South relations. I conducted the first set of interviews with the Ngok elders, Chief Biong

Mijak, Chief Pagwot Deng, and Bulabek Malith, in January 1974 in Khartoum at a time when there was considerable unrest in the Ngok area. Despite the Addis Ababa Agreement at the end of the first civil war (1955-1972), the area was still afflicted with local hostilities between the Arabs and the Dinka. The question of the Ngok joining the South or remaining in the North, which had been debated in Addis Ababa and left to be decided by a referendum, was still a burning issue. The local Arabs, together with local administrators and some of the central government authorities, viewed this as a separatist movement and maintained a repressive grip on the situation that was only marginally different from what had prevailed during the civil war. On the side of the tribe were a group of opportunistic “unionists,” whom the bulk of the people labelled “politicians,” a term that has come to mean “opportunists” among the Ngok Dinka. Under the leadership of the educated, the majority of the people began to demand joining the South as the only outlet from repression. Another alternative, aimed at balancing the interests of all concerned, came

with a proposal I offered the government: To make it an effective bridge between the South and the North, a microcosm of the country and a symbol of national unity and integration, the Ngok area should be made to benefit from intensive development and accorded an autonomous status, in which much of the local control should devolve to the people of the area under the special responsibility of the Presidency. This alternative was accepted. At the time of the interviews, the president had visited the area and announced the new policy towards Abyei, but nothing substantial had as yet been done, and the extremist view still prevailed on both sides. The Ngok people remained suspicious of anything short of joining the South, and the educated youth, most of whom had opposed my proposed policy, were most articulate on this point. Their language was, indeed, offensive to the president, who visited Abyei to announce the policy but decided to withhold much of what he had intended to give the people of the area in terms of local autonomy and economic incentives. I might add that, although I had been invited to come to the Sudan in time

to accompany the president on his visit to Abyei, I had also been urged to proceed to Scandinavia to establish the new embassy at the earliest possible opportunity. Giving priority to this national call, I missed the president’s visit. This undoubtedly contributed to some misunderstanding, as the people were

not aware of my initiative in this respect and the motivations behind it. A prior explanation would almost certainly have clarified the situation and might have gained their support. Without the necessary background, the policy appeared to them as a government action designed to isolate them from their southern brethren and deprive them of the benefits then accruing to the South. The apprehensions of the ordinary Dinka were further intensified when, in

response to the massive display of contempt and disdain for their Chief Kwol Deng (otherwise known by his Muslim name, Adam), the president abolished the institution of chieftainship. Kwol had been unpopular as an individual, but the institution was still regarded by the people as essential. His unpopularity, in fact, had its roots in his implication, rightly or wrongly believed, in the assassination of his popular half-brother, Monyyak (whose Muslim name wasa Abdalla), who had succeeded their powerful and highly influential father, the late Chief Deng Majok. Abdalla had tried to fit himself into his father’s shoes and was desperately trying to maintain the delicate balance between being the representative of the government and the protector of his people during the very difficult period of the 1955-72 civil war, when positions were clearly drawn. He and five members of his family were assassinated by what were known to be elements of the security forces, who had favored Adam and who made him Abdalla’s successor against the will of the people. As a result, Adam became even more unpopular and ineffective. In addi-

tion, the family then carried out a ritual of blood severance with him, and he became isolated, in many ways a lonely and tortured individual among his people. His dismissal was the final blow in the disintegration of his power base as a leader. But the abolition of chieftainship, which the Ngok Dinka believe has been with them since creation and without which they believe their society cannot function or even survive, was a major blow to their sense of integrity, dignity, and survival. This was further aggravated when the administrative and judicial institutions subsequently established to replace chieftainship were filled by the very persons whom the tribe had considered stooges of the security forces during the civil war, and therefore agents of oppression and repression. The melancholy, the sense of abomination, and the bitterness that pervaded

the accounts of those interviewed testify to what the Ngok Dinka then felt about their situation. So obsessed with the theme of hostility were they that, however seemingly unrelated to the subject of Arab-Dinka relations the questions asked were, they always managed to establish a relevancy and reaffirm their views on the matter. Of all the Dinka I interviewed, the Ngok were perhaps the most politically charged in their accounts, which they clearly geared toward bringing about a change in the situation. The situation had significantly changed when I conducted my second joint

interview with Chol Adija, Loth Adija, Marieu Ajak, and Acueng Deng. This interview was conducted in Khartoum in May 1974 at a time when the government had just started to implement the suggested alternative program for

the Ngok area. The mechanization of agriculture had been tried and had proved successful, an impressive health center had been built, a number of development projects were underway, and, most appreciated by the people, the devolution of power to the local people had begun with the appointment of Justin Deng as assistant commissioner in charge of the administration of the area and the transfer of a number of Ngok Dinka policemen, school teachers, and other government officials to the area. Such aspects of the situation as the abolition of the chieftainship and lack of acceptable alternatives continued to embitter the Dinka, but, on the whole, the Ngok had become optimistic about their future and more cordial toward the North. Despite occasional extremism, their accounts of the past, present, and possible future reflected this substantial change of attitude. While these shifts in political perspective will become apparent to the

reader, and while they do influence the Dinka view of history, the objective of this book is simply to present the comprehensive oral history of the Ngok Dinka in three sequential phases: the Pre-British, the Condominium, and the post-Independent. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the role the Ngok Dinka have played in the past and can still play in fostering national unity, provided that the complexities and sensitivities of their relations with their neighbors to the North are realized and positive steps are taken to ensure their peaceful coexistence, harmonious interaction, and integration.