Residents of the disputed border region of Abyei probably voted to join South Sudan in a referendum, an electoral official said, as nomadic herders who use the area for grazing dismissed the outcome as irrelevant.
Abyei is contested by the Ngok Dinka, who are settled in the area and consider themselves South Sudanese, and Misseriya nomads who herd their cattle south in the dry season and are supported by Sudan’s government in the capital, Khartoum.
The Ngok Dinka community held a three-day plebiscite that began Oct. 27 with about 65,000 people registered to vote on which country Abyei should belong to, according to Luka Biong Deng, spokesman for the Abyei Referendum Commission. Counting of votes began today and the final result is due tomorrow, he said.
“They’re definitely leaning to South Sudan,” Deng said in a phone interview today from Abyei town.
The impasse over Abyei has threatened to derail improving relations between Sudan and South Sudan, prompting warnings from the African Union and United Nations. African Union Commission Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma this week called the unilateral referendum an “unacceptable and irresponsible” act that “can only heighten tension on the ground.”
“No one will recognize” the result, said Sadig Babo Nimir, a leader of the Misseriya community, the members of which were excluded from the vote. “The AU and the international community are not going to accept it,” he said by phone yesterday from Khartoum.
A referendum on Abyei was promised as part of a 2005 deal that ended Sudan’s two-decade civil war. South Sudan split from the north two years ago after a vote that was part of the peace accord.
The African Union had called for a referendum to be held this month, with only people who reside in the area eligible to vote. That proposal was backed by South Sudan and rejected by the north. South Sudan has said it won’t recognize the result of this week’s unilateral vote.
Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart, Salva Kiir, last week failed to reach a solution on the border region. Talks in the southern capital, Juba, on Oct. 22 ended with a renewed agreement to “move quickly to establish” a joint administration and police force for Abyei, a pledge previously made in January. Both measures are necessary to prepare for a plebiscite recognized by the two nations.
Deng said he was “confident” that South Sudan will recognize this week’s result even as the government in Juba indicates it won’t. “The struggle of the people of the south and that of the people of Abyei is the same,” he said.
Sudan’s government played down the significance of the vote and its impact on relations with the south. The referendum is a “political demonstration rather than a serious step,” Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said yesterday by phone from Khartoum. “It has no influence on what is going on between the two countries nowadays.”
The UN Security Council on Oct. 24 expressed its “grave concern about the highly volatile situation in Abyei” and urged the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to avoid any actions that could inflame tensions.
Misseriya nomads will begin seasonal migration into the Abyei area in November, according to Nimir, raising the risk of a potential confrontation.
“The Misseriya are going south and no power on Earth will stop them,” he said. “We are controlling ourselves, we don’t want war or bloodshed.”