JUBA — Five and six hundred yards long queues formed either side of the entrance to polling stations – men on one side, women on the the other. They wait in excitement and euphoria on the first day of polling — here — in what would be the new capital of an independent southern Sudan.
The scenes have been repeated all across the region in voting this week to decide whether the region should remain part of Sudan or form the world’s newest country.
Among a group at the end of the line of the polling queue at Saint Bakhita Primary School is 28 year old Joel, who works as a security guard.
“We are going to be free” he said. ” I have no doubt about it.”
His friend, 22 year old Marcus, said that he hopes a new southern Sudan will provide jobs and development for one of the poorest regions in the world. “It is better to be on our own. We can support our own people better that way.”
It is the dry season, and low-rise Juba is getting busier, with new paved roads being built, but these are the only such roads in the entire south, a region roughly the size of France. Despite the poverty, high prices are the norm – for rooms, restaurant meals, consumer goods – inflation caused by the presence of a United Nations mission in the town and the high salaries enjoyed by UN workers.
Otherwise, however, southern Sudan is one of the poorest places on earth. According to UN agencies, 90% of the region’s 9 and half million people are illiterate, half receive some form of international aid, and most live on the equivalent of a dollar a day.
Even so, expectations are high, so southern leaders are telling people that progress will be difficult, and that they have to overcome dependence.
Salva Kiir is currently regional President, and will likely be president of the new state. After voting in the referendum, he told a packed congregation at Juba’s Cathedral that “you need to work hard, and not expect or depend on hand-outs.”
Southern Sudan has 80% of all Sudan’s oil, potentially a lucrative source of development finance. However currently all pipelines run north to refineries in Khartoum and Port Sudan, from where much of it is shipped to China.
American academic Andrew Natsios worked on the negotiations leading up to the 2005 north-south peace,which included the southern independence vote as part of the final document. He says that southern oil will likely remain under US sanctions for the foreseeable future, as it is closely tied in with the north. This will prevent western oil companies from working in the south for now, and means that some oil blocks will remain in limbo.
The north has enjoyed an oil boom in recent years, and will lose out if an independent south pipes oil elsewhere, possibly through Kenya. Oil could be the fuel for future war between north and south.
In the past few day dozens of people have died in tribal clashes along the north-south border, in the disputed Abyei region, through which the current pipeline runs. North and south have fought here many times before, most recently in 2008, and the region is likely flashpoint for renewed north-south fighting, according to the UN Mission, foreign governments and the Sudanese themselves.
Amani Mohamed fled to Ethiopia as a young child, returning to the border area after the 2005 peace deal.
Like others in the region, she is hopeful for the future. “I want the peace to last,” she says. “I want my child to go to school here.”
Like others along the border region, she cannot say for sure whether peace will last. “Everyone is worried that we will have to run away again.”
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Juba, southern Sudan.
– Back in 2007, when I knew more about Sudan than I do now, I contributed two chapters to a book called Beyond Settlement, which focuses on what happens as countries stop fighting. See – http://bit.ly/hdkmVvShow