JUBA — The dateline here and now says ‘Sudan’, but later this year it will likely read ‘South Sudan’ or ‘Nile Republic’. Biblical references such as ‘Cushitia’ or ‘Azania’ are also being touted as names for the what will be world’s newest country. Four million voters in southern Sudan are likely to vote to leave Africa’s largest state in a referendum that started early on Sunday.
Just before 8am, Charles Juma-Seyis was at the end of a 500 yard long queue at Konyo-Konyo polling station in central Juba, the usually low-key and ramshackle would-be capital. “I don’t mind waiting to vote, we have been waiting more than fifty years for this day,” he said.
Since independence from Great Britain in 1956 Sudan has seen only 11 years of peace. A landmark 2005 peace deal brokered by the United States saw southern Sudan gain autonomy within Sudan, with the option to vote on independence after a six-year interim period. That agreement came after 22 years of war that left 2 million dead and 4-5 million more as refugees and internally-displaced. Now the interim period is almost up, and after fears of a delay or sabotage, the plebiscite is going ahead.
Addressing the congregation at St Teresa’s Cathedral in Juba later on Sunday morning, southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a former geurilla fighter, implored people to vote “in a peaceful and orderly manner.”
Kiir, dispensing with his trademark wide-brimmed hat inside the church, said that the vote marks “only the first step on a new journey” and acknowledged that the would-be new country faces massive challenges if it is to succeed.
“People need to understand that we have to work, we cannot depend on hand-outs”, he told the packed congregation fanning themselves in the 33 degree heat.
Voting will run until January 15th, but a result is not expected until mid-February. The drawn-out process is partly down to the vast, inhospitable terrain of the region, and alludes to the challenges to new state will face, if and when it comes into being. There is little more than 100km of paved road in an area roughly the size of France, which includes a vast, impassable swamp known as the Sudd. 90% of people live on less than €1 per day, 85% of the population is illiterate, and almost half the people receive some form of international humanitarian assistance. A recently-established anti-corruption commission has more than 1000 complaints on its desk, but as yet no charges have been filed.
Kiir was joined at the Mass by U.S Senator John Kerry, who has taken on a quasi-official Sudan envoy status in the Obama administration. Sen. Kerry earlier hinted that President Obama would look into dropping American sanctions on the Sudan Government in Khartoum, if it respected the vote in the south and did not attempt to sabotage the outcome.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, western Sudan. He visited Juba last week, and pledged to stick by the result, but only if the referendum passed peacefully and without contention. He later told al-Jazeera that an independent southern Sudan would likely be “a failed state.”
Khartoum has become a boom city in recent years, funded by billions in oil revenues. However 80% of the country’s oil is in the south, and this could be lost to Khartoum, if the south secedes. The north-south border has not been formally demarcated, and there are disagreements over territory elsewhere. However, the south must pipe the oil through the north for processing and exporting, so some form mutual dependence seems likely. That said, formal agreements and long-term stability could be hard to reach.
On the eve of voting, nine people were killed in shoot-outs near the north-south border. The fighting was between the southern Sudan army – which before 2005 was a rebel movement known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – and local militias thought be armed and sponsored by Khartoum. In areas close to the border, cattle-herders and farmers often fight over land and animals, and these local rivalries are said to be manipulated by political elites elsewhere.
Salva Kiir told the congregation, which was dotted with foreign press, that the captured assailants would “explain who armed them and what their motivation was.” Again, though not referring to the Khartoum Government by name, Kiir said that “we will work to overcome our adversaries.” A 60% turnout is needed for the referendum to be valid, and whispers are that violence may be used to intimidate voters and force a reduced turnout.
First, however, the voting must continue. People in rural, isolated areas will have to walk for hours, sometimes days just to vote, while ballot papers will have to be air-lifted back to Juba for counting.
The ballot paper features two symbols, a clasped hand for unity, or a single hand for independence. Billboards around Juba made no pretence of asking people to choose: a single hand, side by side with thumb-print, reminded all that for most southern Sudanese, there is only one option. Independence.
“It should be 100% for freedom,” said Benen, when asked about the likely outcome. She was among the passengers flying into Juba from Nairobi on Saturday, as airlines put on extra flights into the tiny, run-down airport. She said she was flying home to vote, even though southern Sudanese have the option of overseas voting. I want to experience the historical occasion,” she said.
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