JUBA: Voters in south Sudan opted overwhelmingly to create the world’s newest state, partial results posted outside polling stations in regional capital Juba showed Sunday after a count into the night.
There was no way of knowing how representative the results from the city’s larger polling stations were of the vote around Juba, let alone of south Sudan as a whole, in the landmark week-long referendum, which wrapped up on Saturday.
Much of the region is remote countryside where illiterate herders range over big distances with their livestock and the final result which will determine whether the south breaks away to become the world’s 193rd UN member state in July is not expected before next month.
But loudspeaker trucks criss-crossed the potholed dirt tracks of Juba urging south Sudanese to turn out en masse for a huge party to celebrate the mainly Christian, African south’s freedom from rule by the Muslim, mainly Arab north, putting the seal on five decades of conflict in Africa’s largest nation.
Southern president Salva Kiir joined worshippers at Juba’s Roman Catholic cathedral mass in praying for the nation-in-waiting at Sunday mass.
"We offer a prayer of gratitude for the peaceful voting of the referendum," the priest told the congregation.
"We present these votes to God who will bring change through His people of this country."
Outside the polling station set up by the memorial to veteran rebel leader John Garang, policeman John Gadet read the partial results and proclaimed: "We have done it, we have won, and we are free."
The results posted for the station’s D section recorded 3,066 votes for secession to just 25 for continued union with the north.
Juba University polling station recorded 2,663 votes for independence to 69 for unity.
A station set up in a school the city’s Hay Malakal neighborhood reported 1,809 votes for secession to just 75 for unity. The school is almost alone in Juba in still teaching in Arabic, the language of the Khartoum government, as the region has gradually switched to English as its language of instruction.
"Secession. Secession. Secession," the polling station’s returning officer had repeatedly intoned into the night as he carefully unfolded each ballot paper cast before pronouncing the voter’s choice.
The count was conducted by torchlight, creating an almost religious atmosphere in the small classroom. There is no mains electricity.
Each vote was passed for checking to two other polling station staff and shown to domestic and international observers. There were a dozen at Hay Malakal.
Many polling stations in rural areas where voting was conducted out in the open, locked away the ballot boxes for the night and started the count on Sunday.
There was standing room only at Juba’s Catholic cathedral as the faithful flocked to Sunday mass. The congregation spilled out the doors as the choir sang hymns to the accompaniment of animal-skin bongs.
Southern president Kiir, who led his people to the independence vote after Garang’s death shortly after the signing of a 2005 peace deal that ended a devastating 22-year civil war, sat smiling in a pew at the front holding a Bible.
The referendum commission’s chairman, Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, an elder statesman who served as Sudanese foreign minister in the 1960s, hailed the "most peaceful" election he had ever seen in Sudan.
A senior official of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party said the north’s ruling party would accept the outcome of the vote even if it was for partition of Africa’s largest nation.
"The referendum took place in an atmosphere of calm… with a great degree of freedom and fairness," Rabie Abdul Ati told AFP.
"It is very clear that the party will accept the result whether it be for unity or secession," he said.
EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton hailed "a historic event and a major milestone," and said the bloc’s observers would give a preliminary assessment early next week.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on the "people and institutions of Sudan to exercise patience and restraint until the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission announces the final result."