- Associated Press - Sunday, January 9, 2011

JUBA, Sudan — Women broke out in song and men wrapped themselves in flags as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots Sunday in a weeklong independence referendum likely to create the world’s newest nation about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.

The mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa’s largest country in two.

The president of Sudan, who has been indicted for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur, has promised to let go of the oil-rich south after his government tried for years to derail the vote now taking place under massive international scrutiny.

His unlikely acceptance of the seemingly inevitable loss comes as the two regions face an interwoven economic future: Most of Sudan‘s oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north.

On Sunday, there was jubilation among those who had lived through years of fighting.

“This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for,” said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir as he cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds lined up in front of the polling station. Sudan activist George Clooney was among those watching Mr. Kiir vote.

Mr. Kiir, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, appeared visibly emotional as he remembered the 2 million people killed in the 1983-2005 civil war. He also honored rebel leader John Garang, who died in a plane crash shortly after the peace deal was signed.

“I am sure that they didn’t die in vain,” he told the crowd.

Women broke out in songs and chants, and one man waved a sign saying: “A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!!!”

Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang’s grave, where Mr. Kiir voted. Among the voters was Mawien Mabut, a 36-year-old soldier who was grinning widely as he lined up to cast his ballot.

“I have seen the inside of war, so we have to stop the war now. We are very happy the Arabs are going away,” he said.

Standing near him was Rachel Akech, 30. The tall, pregnant woman has traditional scars on her face and her lower teeth removed, a rite of passage in the Dinka tribe.

“I couldn’t even sleep, I’ve been thinking about this day for so long,” she said. “I am ready to vote.”

This week’s referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the two-decade civil war between the north and south. Voters can mark one of two choices — a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity. The illustrations are necessary because only 15 percent of the region’s 8.7 million people can read.

Southern Sudan is among the world’s poorest regions, and the United Nations says a 15-year-old girl here has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.

Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, long have resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern, Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. The fiercest period of fighting was the two-decade span that began in the early 1980s and ended with the peace agreement.

More than 1 million people headed north to escape the violence, and about 3,800 war orphans known as the Lost Boys of Sudan resettled in the United States. Some of those orphans will join thousands of other Sudanese to vote at polling sites set up in eight U.S. cities.

Sudan, geographically the largest country on the continent, will lose a third of its land, nearly a quarter of its population and much of its oil if the south secedes. Khartoum’s only consolation will be that the pipelines to get the product to market all run through its territory.

In recent weeks Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has sought to play down fears of potential violence, saying the north will accept a vote for secession.

“Definitely the division of Sudan will be a painful process. However, at the end of the day, it is the ultimate right of the citizen of the south whether to stay united or secede,” Mr. al-Bashir said in an interview that aired on Al-Jazeera English on Sunday. The remarks in Arabic were voiced over in English.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said Sunday that the referendum had been calm and peaceful so far. The Carter Center has observers monitoring voting across the country.

“I think the last thing that the leaders in the north or south want is a resumption of violence, which would be devastating to both countries, if they are two countries,” Mr. Carter said.

About 117,000 southerners who live in the north also registered to vote, but the scenes at polling stations in Sudan‘s capital of Khartoum were far removed from the joyous scenes in the south.

Many southerners fear retribution from northerners if they vote. A large billboard in downtown Khartoum featured a picture of Mr. al-Bashir dressed in feathered southern headgear with the words “No to separation, together, together.”

At one high school polling station in Khartoum, about a dozen staffers and observers sat but no voters appeared. Another station saw only a trickle of voters, and some voted against independence.

“I voted today, and frankly, I voted for unity,” said Aldod Akon Deng, 65, who is originally from the south. “I am here since 1964. My kids are all born in Khartoum. That’s why I voted for unity. I’ve been raised here. My family grew up here. Even if there’s separation, I’ll stay here.”

Ayeng Dut, a government employee in his 50s who plans to return south, opted not to vote.

“If I was in the south, I would have voted, but I’m here. I’m staying out of it,” he said. “For southerners, today is freedom.”

The north and south still need to negotiate the distribution of oil revenues, rights to the White Nile, official borders and citizenship rights. Full independence wouldn’t take place before July 9, when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, expires and a new agreement must take its place.

Clashes still could flare along border hotspots and in the disputed border region of Abyei. That region had also been scheduled to hold a freedom referendum on Sunday, but its status is disputed by the two sides. It is likely to be subject to continued negotiations between the north and south, brokered alternately by the African Union and the United States.

The United States has said it may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if the referendum come off peacefully.

About 3.9 million people registered to vote. A simple majority must vote for separation for the referendum to pass, but 60 percent of registered voters must cast ballots for the vote to be valid. After the polls close next Saturday, local polling stations will begin tallying and posting results as more than 4,000 local and international observers watch. Final results won’t be certified until February.

Turnout appeared robust early in the seven-day process in the southern capital of Juba, where voters were excited to chart a new course.

“Today we’re going to determine our future. We will soon be free from Arab rule,” said Ajigak Akoi, 27.

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan, contributed to this report.

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