Members of the Ngok Dinka community in the disputed Abyei region have said they plan to hold a unilateral referendum to decide whether the area will join South Sudan or Sudan.
Delegates from the Abyei Referendum Task Force, made up of Ngok Dinka leaders who favor becoming part of South Sudan, began registering voters at an abandoned school in the center of Abyei town on Sunday. Twenty-eight more voter registration centers have been opened across the region.
Monyluak Agany was born in the area, but fled during heavy fighting between southern forces and the Sudanese army in 2008. He says he has returned for good, and he was among the dozens who turned out to register to vote in the referendum, which is set to be held from October 27-29.
Task Force members said they plan to release the results of the unilateral referendum by October 31st.
“I will register my name in the coming minutes. It is important because we will have our rights and we will be free from any problems,” he said.
The status of the 10,000-square-kilometer area of Abyei has been in dispute since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than 20 years of civil war in the once-unified Sudan. Abyei was supposed to decide its status in a referendum originally scheduled for January 2011, the same time southerners voted on independence.
Prized for its fertile land and oil reserves, Abyei is claimed by the north and south, and is currently under United Nations' administration.
African Union mediators called last year for a referendum to be held this month to decide whether Abyei would belong to the north or south.
But no date has been set for the vote, and at this late stage in the month, it seems highly unlikely the AU-suggested deadline will be met.
Khartoum has repeatedly said it will not allow a proposed referendum for Abyei to go ahead, citing the fact that Misseriya nomads -- Sudanese citizens who pass through the disputed territory on their way to watering and grazing grounds for their cattle -- would not be eligible to vote. South Sudan backs the vote, but Ngok Dinka leaders say the Misseriya should not be allowed to vote because they don't live in the area year-round.
The Task Force has helped thousands of displaced residents of Abyei to return for the vote, and Task Force Chairman Deng Alor said the organizers of the referendum have no choice but to go ahead with their own vote before the month ends.
He also complained that the international community was largely indifferent to the plight of Abyei residents who want the vote to take place.
“Because the government of Sudan is not responding, the African Union is not doing anything, the international community is almost silent about it, the people of this area have decided to conduct their own referendum, and we’ll see how the African Union and the international community, the government of Sudan and the government of South Sudan will react,” he said.
More than 150,000 people are expected to take part in the vote, which is being funded by members of the Ngok Dinka community, Deng said.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is scheduled to arrive in Juba Tuesday to hold talks with President Salva Kiir that are expected to have the Abyei question at the top of the agenda.
South Sudan Foreign Affairs spokesman Mawien Makol Arik suggested it would be better if the Ngok Dinka waited for the two presidents to meet and for the AU to set an official date for the vote, rather than moving ahead on their own.