Hopes high, time short for south Sudan independence vote

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

JUBA: With only 100 days left on Friday until south Sudan’s referendum on independence, expectations are high — the region is already preparing a national anthem — but huge challenges remain.

"Black warriors, let’s stand up in silence and respect, saluting millions of martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation," the anthem runs, recalling those who died in decades of bitter war with the north.

"We vow to protect our nation," it adds, promising "peace, liberty and justice."

But while the anthem lyrics are ready, many are deeply concerned that time is too short, with basic logistics still missing, to ensure a credible vote on the scheduled date of January 9, 2011.

Voter officials must be trained, the massive task of registration — yet to even start — must be completed, and tons of material must be printed and delivered across a vast region of jungle, swamp and grasslands the size of Spain and Portugal, but with only 60 kilometers (40 miles) of tarred roads.

Southerners in the north will also be able to vote, but it is still unclear what criteria will be used to decide who is eligible.

"We are committed to the referendum so we can vote for our freedom, but there is so much still to complete," said Ayen Kuer, a member of a pro-independence youth group, who demonstrate monthly to raise awareness about the upcoming vote.

"We are worried people deliberately want to block it from going ahead," Kuer added.

Last week, US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon led international warnings that votes must be on time and without violence.

But southerners say they need more than speeches for the vote to go ahead.

"We need practical support to ensure the referendum is successful," said Bishop Arkanjelo Wani Lemi, a leader of the South Sudan Religious Leaders Referendum Initiative. "People are very concerned."

A simultaneous vote will take place in the contested oil-rich district of Abyei on the north-south border, where residents will have to decide whether they want to be part of north or south Sudan.

But the referendum commission to run that vote has not yet been named.

The referendum on southern independence was a key provision of the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of war between the north and the south in which some two million people died.

Many fear any delay could lead to cancellation, with southern president Salva Kiir insisting the January 9 date is "sacrosanct."

"There is without question a real risk of a return to violence on a massive scale if the referenda do not go ahead as scheduled," said Kiir, speaking ahead of a special UN meeting in New York last week.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has repeatedly promised that the referendum will go ahead on time, but tensions are high.

Talks between the leaders in Khartoum and Juba continue on potential post-referendum deals, including the wealth sharing of resources such as oil, Sudan’s crippling 35 billion dollar external debt, border demarcation and citizenship issues.

But pressure is building, with the north and south this week both rejecting accusations by the other of troop build-ups along their still-contested border.

The south has also rejected claims by the north that those campaigning for unity in the south were being harassed or blocked.

Southern culture minister Changson Chang has unveiled plans for musical concerts across the south for voter education where proponents of either choice can explain their views.

"They will provide an open platform for politicians to offer their referendum messages whether they are for separation or for unity, so they can debate the pros and cons of both decisions," said Chang.

"We are all hoping for a peaceful end to the process," he added.

Some point out that Sudan pulled off much delayed national elections in April despite similar concerns in the run up that the vote would fail.

But the electoral process was far from perfect, and with the future of as much as 80 percent of Sudan’s lucrative oil reserves that lie in the south also at stake, the level of scrutiny will be far higher.

Even if the vote is held on time, analysts voice serious concerns that the north will reject the outcome and claim the vote lacked credibility, while others raise the prospect of fraud.

Although any decision needs 50 percent plus one vote to be passed, the vote requires a minimum turnout of 60 percent of registered voters to be accepted.

"Rigging the simple majority would be extremely difficult, as all indications are that a huge majority of voters will choose secession," wrote Sudan analyst John Ashworth, in a recent report for the Pax Christi advocacy group.

"However, the 60 percent quorum would be easier to rig. One tactic would be to make it difficult for registered voters to turn out, due to insecurity, transport and other problems."


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