JUBA: Hundreds of cheering southern Sudanese packed a concert hall in the regional capital Juba to watch contestants battle it out to provide the music for a "national" anthem, less than 80 days before a planned referendum on independence.
"This is a historic moment," said Mido Samuel, one of three entrants who made the final shortlist after an initial field of 36 was whittled down in the competition which climaxed late on Sunday.
"Having a national anthem for me means that I am declaring to everybody that I am now free," he said.
South Sudan is still recovering from decades of war with the north during which about two million people died in a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources, including oil.
Excitement is rising as the south prepares to vote on January 9 in an independence referendum that was the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.
Most analysts expect the south to vote to break away and split Africa’s largest nation in two.
"This is about the spirit of the people of southern Sudan, who have never accepted to be enslaved without resistance," said Pagan Amum, secretary general of the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), speaking before the music began.
"Southerners are united by a common aspiration to be free," said Amum, who later danced in front of the audience alongside southern army Chief James Hoth.
"On January 9, we will be free, and we will extend our hands in friendship to all the people of the world, particularly to the people of northern Sudan, whose elites have ruled us in a bad way."
The final shortlist will now be put to senior officials of the south’s autonomous regional government and army who will make the final choice, said Joseph Abuk, chairman of the technical committee overseeing the anthem.
"This is part of our search for identity," said Abuk. "That is why national anthems are so very important."
The words for the anthem have already been chosen by a committee including government and military representatives.
"Sing songs of freedom with joy," the lyrics run. "For peace, liberty and justice shall forever reign."
Tensions remain high between the mainly Muslim north and the grossly underdeveloped south, most of whose inhabitants are Christian or follow traditional beliefs.
"Oh black warriors! Let’s stand up in silence and respect, saluting millions of martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation," another verse runs.
North and south remain deadlocked over who should be eligible to take part in a separate vote in the contested oil-producing district of Abyei on whether it should remain part of the north or join an autonomous or independent south.
The vote is supposed to take place on same day as the wider independence referendum in the south but preparations have been overshadowed by the row over the electoral register.