Southern Sudanese vote in historic independence poll

Sunday, January 9, 2011

JUBA - Southern Sudanese went to the polls Sunday in a historic referendum that is widely expected to see them vote to split from the north.

The week-long vote is the centrepiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south - a conflict that claimed the lives of more than two million southerners and displaced four million more.

An emotional Salva Kiir, president of the autonomous Southern Sudan, choked back tears as he cast his ballot and dedicated the vote to independence leader John Garang - who died in a 2005 helicopter crash - and all those who perished in the war.

“I believe Dr. John and all those that died with him are with us today and I must assure them they did not die in vain,” he said in the capital Juba shortly after voting.

Just under four million Southern Sudanese are registered to put a thumbprint on the ballot - either under a picture of two hands clasping for unity, or one held up as if waving goodbye for secession.

Few doubt that jubilant and expectant Southern Sudanese will vote for independence, but at least 60 percent of registered voters must turn out for the referendum to be valid.

There were long lines at polling stations across Juba, and hundreds of people had slept overnight outside the polling station at a memorial to Garang.

Inside the memorial’s gates, women draped in the southern flag danced to the drums and chants of the joyous southerners who had come out to see Kiir vote.

On the streets of Juba, slow-moving pickup trucks were loaded with flag-waving campaigners chanting: “No more unity!”

“The south will be independent,” Tor Kuet, 45, told DPA as he queued to vote. “I should be happy, we have been at war for so many years, this is the only way the bloodshed will stop.”

The vote, which many had doubted would take place on time, has raised fears of a return to conflict between north and south.

However, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a visit to Juba last week said the north wanted peace and would abide by Southern Sudan’s wishes.

The international community has put heavy pressure on the north to accept the result, and election observers from the UN, European Union, African Union and Carter Centre have flocked to Sudan for the vote.

According to Chan Reec Madut, a southerner and the deputy chairman of the referendum commission, over 20,000 domestic and international observers and journalists are monitoring the poll.

Yet many issues remain unresolved and large oil deposits, most of which lie in the south, have raised the stakes.

The north-south border, which demarcates Sudan’s oilfields, has yet to be finalised. Nor has the status of the oil-producing Abyei region, which must decide whether it goes with north or south, been agreed upon.

The status of those southerners still in the north - who also began voting Sunday - is causing concern, with some worried they may become stateless.

Al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in a separate conflict in Darfur province, said he believed Abyei has the potential to reignite civil war - a sentiment echoed by many observers.

Clashes between the Arab Misseriya, a nomadic tribe that travels through Abyei each year, and the southern Dinka Ngok tribe have claimed as many as nine lives since Saturday, according to local officials.

The oil-producing area was scheduled to hold a referendum Sunday to decide whether to go with north or south, but that vote was postponed when Dinka and Misseriya leaders could not agree on who had the right to vote.

Even if the expected independence materializes without conflict, aid agencies say Southern Sudan - which they note suffers from clashes between rival communities, has only a few dozen kilometres of paved road in a country the size of France and has appalling development indicators - needs huge support from the international community.

“The chronic poverty, lack of development and the threat of violence that blight people’s daily lives will not disappear after the referendum,” said Melinda Young, head of Oxfam in Southern Sudan.

According to the referendum commission’s timetable, preliminary results will be announced on Feb 1. Final results are expected by Feb 14.

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