From Akobo, Jonglei State

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Rural women wait in line to register as voters at Akobo town, Jonglei State (Copyright: Josh)

This is my second week at Akobo where I have been conducting a series of workshops on Community Security and Civilian Disarmament (a project of Safer World and UNYMPDA). I have been amazed at the level of mobilization by the county’s administration led by the referendum office and supported by the SSRRC. They are even using boats to reach some far flung bomas (villages) especially near the border with Ethiopia. The level and depth of organization, despite numerous challenges especially of access, is simply amazing. The SSRRC told me that they had set a target of about 15,000 but as at friday, the figure was slightly over 17,000. This is good news. Or is it? Remembering that requirement of at least 60% turnout for a legitimate secession result, the leaders have been asking residents who will not be around to vote not to register. They want at least 80% turnout. I think they’ll get more than that, based on my personal assessment after talking to people. This is good.

 

Returnees arriving in Akobo. Many people have returned to register as voters in the upcoming referendum

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Towards the Separation

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Pres Salva Kiir

 

It is now only three months to the referendum in South Sudan and Abyei regions.

The mood in the south is heavy with anticipation for the plebiscite. Every southerner can tell you for sure that it’s only a matter of days before they become an independent state, ‘free from the NCP clutches’, so they say. In churches, clan gatherings, the message is the same: let’s all vote for unity. Almost every day in Juba, the South’s capital, there’s demonstrations by various groups in support of separation come January 2011. Dismissing their obligation under the CPA to make unity attractive, many SPLM officials in government are no longer ashamed of campaigning for separation. Perhaps this is guided by the clear mood on the ground: Southerners will not go for anything short of a new independent state.

It is considered sacrilegious in the south to even speak of unity.

While the Referendum Commission prepares for the voter registration which is, in true Sudanese fashion, way behind schedule, there are fears that just as it was before the April elections, this process will be marred by irregularities that may cast doubts on the legitimacy of the vote’s outcome, depending on where one stands.

NCP is currently raising its rhetoric against proceeding with the plebiscite before ‘certain key aspects’ of post-referendum arrangements are finalized.

Storms seem to be gathering in the horizon as the Referendum Commission embarks on voter registration. It is not lost on many observers the messy nature of a similar process in preparation for the April elections. Of significant bearing to this is the issue of citizenship of throngs of southerners living in the north. What is their fate and most importantly, will they be allowed to vote in the referendum?

The referendum itself should not be such a complex process. If the commission can come up with a simple question such as “Do you approve the separation of Sudan into two states” with simple to identify symbols, it is likely to register a very high voter turn out. Interestingly, many SPLM officials are asking those southerners who know they won’t be able to vote not to register as this will negatively affect the total percentage of registered voters that vote for separation (the NCP managed to add an interesting caveat; that they will only accept an outcome for separation if the total voter turn-out is above 60%. This is going to be hard to attain in the vast and remote south). The kind of acrimonious fall-out witnessed after the April elections is not likely to be seen because expectedly, the majority will be voting the same way and therefore not polarizing outcomes as far as the south is concerned. It would only turn bloody in the unlikely event that blatant and widespread rigging result in vote for separation being defeated.

There is also the growing concern that Khartoum will not recognize the outcome of the referendum due to what they term as non-completion of key post-referendum arrangements. Whether these threats are classical NCP upping its stakes in readiness for the final round of its negotiations with SPLM is anyone’s guess. What many analysts agree is that NCP knows that there is nothing short of a full scale war that can stop the South from ‘going’. The only question is, are they convinced that the costs of such a war would be justified by a quick and clear victory or will it usher in another round of intractable and large scale conflict that will not only strain Khartoum’s resources but will also suck in major regional powers and invite international condemnation especially in light of ICC indictments on President Omar Bashir? The International Crisis Group avers that should war breakout, it will be the biggest conventional war of the 21st century. Not many people see this as likely. The NCP has in the recent past increased its rhetoric to this effect, with such leaders as the deputy foreign minister and other leading lights threatening the worst. Predictably, this has been met with harshest of condemnation from the SPLM. And during the UN meeting, GOSS president Salva Kiir left no doubt as to his administration’s unequivocal desire to hold the vote as scheduled and not a day later. In fact, he admitted that the process may be fraught with major challenges from registration to the actual vote. Said he, “Sudan is not like Switzerland… Things do not happen perfectly”.

Just like the last trimester in a woman’s pregnancy, the next three months will be very critical if we are to have a safe delivery. The international community and especially the US must play a proactive role in ensuring the following two key things take place. One:

1.  That the referendum goes on at all costs on the agreed date. Expecting perfect preparations and all-round happiness from the parties is naïve. Contrary to what NCP is saying, the vote can proceed peacefully even if there are pending post-referendum arrangement issues

2. The Abyei talks be spearheaded by the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya tribal leaders only without interference from Juba or Khartoum. It seems this is what they want. A neutral mediator can facilitate these talks.