October 23, 2013 (JUBA) - Leaders from the contested oil region of Abyei say they are determined to hold a unilateral vote to decide whether the region should remain in Sudan or join South Sudan by 31 October.
The Africa Union suggested earlier this year that the vote - originally scheduled for January 2011 - go ahead this month but Sudan and South Sudan have been unable to resolve their outstanding issues on the plebiscite.
If the vote were to go ahead with only those resident in the area, the Dinka Ngok peoples would be expected to vote to join South Sudan, which itself seceded from Sudan in July 2011 as part of a 2005 peace deal.
The result of the unilateral referendum planned by the Dinka Ngok would be declared in one weeks time on 31 October, Abyei community leaders said on Wednesday.
Khartoum has warned against any such action as had the African Union, while Juba has distanced the central South Sudanese government from the unilateral move for fear of jeopardising the recent defrosting of relations which allows the young nation to export its oil through north Sudan.
The Dinka Ngok accuse the African Union, United Nations and the rest of the international community of turning a blind eye to their concerns.
Deng Kuol, a senior member of South Sudan’s ruliing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), who comes from the area, told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday that "the people of Abyei have the right like anybody in this world to decide our own destiny. It is up to us to decide where we would like to go, whether we want to go east, west, north or south."
In the 2005 peace deal between the SPLM and Khartoum, the two sides agreed that the residents of Abyei would hold a referendum to decide whether the area would rejoin South Sudan, from where it was transferred during the British colonial era.
"The international community should indeed come out now and makes a clear position to stand with our people instead of standing with the devil”, he said, apparently in reference to the Khartoum government, which has insisted at the Misseriya tribe be allowed to participate in the vote.
Some members of the Misseriya enter Abyei for parts of the year to graze their cattle.
Kuol said the voter registration processes has already begun and people in the area are being issued with identification cards as well as information about places in which they can vote.
"Our people have drawn clear red lines that can only be crossed if the referendum is conducted. They have set dates for every activity and we are not shaken by messages about this referendum, instead these messages have strengthened the moral and unity of our people. The 31st October will certainly be the day on which the future of this area will be clear", said Kuol.
The United Nations and the African Union have continued to push for the issue of Abyei to be decided by the presidents of the two countries who held a summit on Tuesday but failed to make any progress on the issue.
The two sides, he said, have failed repeatedly to the take the action to end the dispute in compliance with resolution 2046 of the UN Security Council, such as setting up joint interim institutions and the commission to run the elections.
“President Salva Kiir himself has said it time and again that he will never reach an understanding with Bashir on the issue of Abyei, even if they were to be allowed to continue discussions for hundred years”.
Kiir emphasised this in a letter to the African Union Commission earlier this month.
Kuol asked why "time and resources" should be wasted when the "demand of our people has been very clear. They want the referendum to be conducted so that we decide our fate. This is what we have been asking over the years."
Two years and nine months since the original vote was supposed to take place, Kuol, said the Dinka Ngok reached the conclusion that "nobody is listening to us anymore and so we are deciding to determine our own destiny by vote, which we have already started the processes for which the results will be made known at the end of this month. What this means to some people is not our business”.
Luka Biong Deng another senior SPLM member from Abyei said October “was not a creation of the people of Abyei” but that it was the work of the African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) led by Thabo Mbeki.
"The people of Abyei have waited long enough and I do not think the international community will a reason to stop from the determining their fate", said Deng.
Deng, the former Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee (AJOC) said the situation was aggravated by the killing of the Dinka Ngok’s paramount chief in May.
He also blamed the continuous failure to agree on the terms of the referendum and not permitting the joint administration in which representatives of the Misseriya would also participate.
"It is a missed opportunity. The government of Sudan did it deliberately and this situation can only be averted if Bashir with President Salva agree within this month to the resolve the status", Deng told Sudan Tribune by phone from Abyei town, the administrative headquarters of the area.
Arop Madut Arop, a member of parliament in Juba representing the area said there was nothing which would stop his people from determining their fate, despite the failure of the two sides to reach a deal.
"Our people have exhausted all the avenues and it is this situation which will force them to decide their destiny if the African Union and the United Nations Security Council fail to stand by their own resolutions. There is no shame with outcome. You know that the people of Somaliland are now living a normal life in their territory despite the fact that they have not been recognised by many nations. Our people can do the same provided that they will have where to live, if the international community fails to show any responsibility", Arop told Sudan Tribune in a separate interview.
Meanwhile, Eye Radio, last week quoted Sudanese Information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman as saying that the status of the Abyei region can only be determined by the government of the two countries without external pressure.
“Interference by outside countries in forcing one side to conduct a referendum in Abyei could destroy relations between South Sudan and Sudan", he said.
Osman told Eye Radio that Khartoum and Juba can resolve their difference as neighbours.
“The geographical area of South Sudan is 700,000 Kilometers and the size of Abyei is 10,000 Kilometers. So what does 10, 000Kilometer means to us compared to 700,000 Kilometers?", he asked.
“For us Sudanese, it is not a problem. Attempts by some people to fuel conflict in Abyei in order to make it a reason to spoil relations between the two nations, is wrong.The Abyei issue can be resolved amicably.”
Western diplomats and the African Union have warned against any unilateral conduct of a referendum in Abyei to determine the future of Abyei.